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

JUBA (Reuters) - A rift appeared in one of South Sudan's two main rival groups on Friday, raising the prospect of further turmoil after months of fighting, as members of one faction threatened to replace their leader.

A group inside the SPLM-IO movement issued a statement saying its head Riek Machar should return to the capital Juba and carry on his work in the government, or be removed from office.

Machar, South Sudan's Vice President, and his SPLM-IO group, have been caught up with more than two years of on-and-off, ethnically charged fighting with supporters of the country's President Salva Kiir.

Machar left the capital last week after a fresh outbreak of clashes, saying he would only return when an international body set up a buffer force to separate his forces from Kiir's.

Kiir called on him on Thursday to return to salvage a peace deal, and a faction of Machar's own group, led by mining minister Taban Deng Gai, on Friday said they agreed.

“The decision by the government to give... Machar an ultimatum is entirely in line with its powers," William Ezekiel, spokesman for SPLM-IO faction allied to Gai, told Reuters by phone.

"On our side, we want him to show up, otherwise we will replace him."

Machar's spokesman, James Gatdet, rebuffed the threats, saaying Gai's faction had no official status in the momement.

South Sudan's politics has long been plagued by splits and rivalries as leaders switch allegiances, in the contest for power and influence in the oil-producing nation, which only emerged from Sudan five years ago.

“Machar ... has communicated to all his military commanders to cut off any communication with General Taban Deng Gai and his few individuals who support the President Kiir's conspiracy," he said.

The two years of fighting started after Kiir sacked Machar as Vice President in 2013 and has killed more than 10,000 people and displaced over 2 million, many of whom fled to neighbouring countries.

The most recent fighting in Juba has forces 26,000 people to flee to neighbouring Uganda, the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR's spokesman Andreas Needham told a news conference in Geneva.

(Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by George Obulutsa; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

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