Reuters International

South Sudan's rebel leader Riek Machar talks on the phone in his field office in a rebel-controlled territory in Jonglei State, South Sudan, February 1, 2014. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic/File Photo

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By Denis Dumo and Michelle Nichols

JUBA/NEW YORK (Reuters) - South Sudan's former vice president and opposition leader Riek Machar is in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo, the U.N. said on Thursday, several weeks after he withdrew from the capital Juba during fierce fighting with government troops.

The United Nations peacekeeping mission in the DRC became aware of Machar's presence in the country on Wednesday and contacted the Congolese government, who then asked the mission to extract Machar from his location, U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq told reporters in New York.

"Riek Machar has been handed over to the authorities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. We're not in a position to confirm his location," Haq said.

A spokesman for the DRC government, Lambert Mende, denied they had been in touch with any party on helping the former South Sudanese vice president but Haq said Machar was extracted from an area close to the border with South Sudan.

"We can confirm that an operation was undertaken by MONUSCO (U.N. mission) on humanitarian grounds to facilitate the extraction of Riek Machar, his wife and ten others from a location in the DRC in support of the DRC authorities," Haq said, adding MONUSCO was adjudged the best suited party to move Machar safely.

A statement issued by the leadership of the SPLA In Opposition (SPLA-IO) said he had left on Wednesday to a "safe country within the region".

Machar led a two-year rebellion against forces loyal to his longtime rival President Salva Kiir before the two sides reached a peace deal in August 2015. Under the deal, Machar returned to Juba in April to resume his role as vice president.

But fighting flared last month, leading Machar to withdraw with his forces from Juba around mid-July.

Opposition spokesman James Gatdek Dak, writing on his Facebook page, said opposition fighters had "successfully relocated our leader to a neighbouring country where he will now have unhindered access to the rest of the world and the media."

Machar had sustained a leg injury from weeks of walking in the bush but not serious enough to require medical attention, Gatdek Dak said.

Since the July fighting, Kiir has sacked Machar from his post and appointed Taban Deng Gai, a former opposition negotiator who broke ranks with Machar, as vice president.

The United Nations told Kiir that any political changes must be consistent with the peace deal, which stated that the vice president must be chosen by the South Sudan Armed Opposition.

(Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols in New York and Aaron Ross in Kinshasa.; Writing by Edmund Blair and Duncan Miriri; Editing by Toby Chopra)

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