By NBF News

Former rebels in South Sudan who fought in a 22-year civil war have begun laying down arms in the world's biggest ever demobilisation of its kind.

It is hoped 180,000 ex-fighters will down weapons as part of the 2005 peace deal which ended the conflict between north and south that left 1.5m dead.

Sixteen soldiers became the first in the south to demobilise on Wednesday.

The huge UN-backed programme began in February in North Sudan, where 4,300 troops have demobilised so far.

Speaking on behalf of South Sudan President Salva Kiir, Cabinet Affairs Minister Luka Monoja in Juba told the 16 former members of the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army: “You must go with your heads held high, we are proud of you.”

Under the programme, each soldier is registered, hands their gun in, undergoes medical checks and is given a small cash sum as well as a kit to help them return to life outside the military, including rations and basic tools.

But correspondents say tension remains between north and south and many fear renewed fighting ahead of a referendum on the south's potential full independence due in 2011.