Soldiers of the East Africa Response Force.
Soldiers of the East Africa Response Force.
Gunfire hit three United States military aircraft trying to evacuate American citizens in a remote region of South Sudan that yesterday became a battleground between the country's military and renegade troops.
Four US service members were wounded in the attack in the same region where gunfire downed a United Nations helicopter the day before.
The US military aircraft were about to land in Bor, the capital of the state of Jonglei and scene of some of the worst violence over the past week, when they were hit.
The military said the four wounded troops were in stable condition.
The US military said three CV-22 Ospreys - aircraft that can fly like a helicopter and a plane - were "participating in a mission to evacuate American citizens in Bor".
A South Sudanese official said violence against civilians there had resulted in bodies "sprinkled all over town".
"After receiving fire from the ground while approaching the site, the aircraft diverted to an airfield outside the country and aborted the mission," the US statement said. "The injured troops are being treated for their wounds."
It was not known how many US civilians are in Bor.
After the aircraft came under fire, they turned around and flew to Entebbe in Uganda. From there the service members were flown to Nairobi in Kenya on board a US Air Force C-17 for medical treatment.
US President Barack Obama said continued violence and militancy in South Sudan might cost it the support of the US and other nations. He said South Sudan's leaders had a responsibility to help protect Americans.
While holidaying in Hawaii, Obama spoke by telephone with national security aides, the White House said. Obama told his team to work with the UN to keep evacuating Americans from Bor.
"This conflict can only be resolved peacefully through negotiations," a White House statement said. "Any effort to seize power through the use of military force will result in the end of longstanding support from the US and the international community."
An official in the region said the Americans did not tell the top commander in Bor, General Peter Gadet, who defected from the South Sudanese military last week, that they were coming in, which might have led to the attack. The US statements said the gunfire was from unknown forces.
South Sudan's military spokesman, Colonel Philip Aguer, said that government troops were not in control of Bor, so the attack on the US aircraft had to be blamed on renegade soldiers.
"Bor is under the control of the forces of Riek Machar," Aguer said, referring to the ousted Vice-President.
The US Embassy in Juba said it had evacuated at least 450 Americans and other foreign nationals from Juba in the past week and had hoped to begin evacuations from Bor. The US Ospreys were hit one day after small arms fire downed a UN helicopter in the same state.
The UN on Saturday sent four helicopters to extract 40 UN peacekeepers from a base in Yuai, also in Jonglei, UN information officer Joe Contreras said. One helicopter was fired on and made an emergency landing in Upper Nile state, he said. No casualties occurred. South Sudan's Information Minister, Michael Makuei Lueth, said South Sudanese ground troops, backed by the air force, were fighting rebels in Bor, in an effort to retake the state capital they lost last week.
"There is fighting going on in Bor town, yes, because since morning they have continued to attack the civilian population," Lueth said, talking about renegade troops. "They have gone as far as not respecting the UN compound."
Displaced children sit together after seeking refuge at the compound of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan in Juba, South Sudan. Photo / AP
Displaced children sit together after seeking refuge at the compound of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan in Juba, South Sudan. Photo / AP
He said fighting started on Saturday after reports came in that rebels there were shooting indiscriminately at civilians.
"The bodies are sprinkled all over the town." No death toll could be estimated, he said.
South Sudanese President Salva Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, said an attempted coup triggered the violence. He blamed Machar, an ethnic Nuer. But officials have since said a fight between Dinka and Nuer members of the presidential guard triggered the initial violence. Machar's ouster from the country's No 2 political position earlier this year had stoked ethnic tensions.
The violence has killed hundreds and has world leaders worried that a full-blown civil war could ignite in South Sudan. The south fought a decades-long war with Sudan before a 2005 peace deal resulted in a 2011 referendum that saw South Sudan break away from the north, taking most of the region's oil wealth with it.
Lueth described Machar as "the rebel leader", saying the forces that control Bor believed they were fighting on his behalf. Machar's whereabouts remain unknown, but he has said in recent interviews that he is in hiding somewhere in South Sudan.
An International Crisis Group expert on South Sudan said rebels had taken control of at least some of South Sudan's oil fields, an issue that could bring Sudan into the conflict. South Sudan's oil flows north through Sudan's pipelines, providing Khartoum with much needed income.
The UN Security Council has said the week-long violence could affect neighbouring countries and the entire region.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon demanded an immediate end to the violence, warning that tens of thousands remained vulnerable.
"I demand that all political, military and militia leaders stop hostilities and end the violence against the civilians," Ban said in Manila as he wrapped up a two-day visit to the Philippines.
He called on Kiir and Machar to "find a political way out of this crisis" and order their followers to lay down arms.
"I call on them to do everything in their power to ensure that their followers hear their message loud and clear," Ban said. "Continued violence, ethnic or otherwise, is completely unacceptable and poses a dangerous threat to the future of their young country."
Kenya announced it was sending in troops to evacuate 1600 Kenyans stranded in South Sudan, many of them in Bor.
Last week, Obama sent American troops to help protect the US Embassy in the capital, Juba. The embassy organised at least five emergency evacuation flights to help Americans leave the country. Britain, Germany and Italy have also helped citizens leave.
US Secretary of State John Kerry called Kiir to urge the South Sudanese leader to avoid ethnic conflict, preserve the welfare of those fleeing the conflict and protect US citizens. Kerry was sending a special envoy to the region and told Kiir South Sudan's challenges required leadership and political dialogue, the State Department said.
Mediators from East Africa continued to try to help negotiate peace. Ethiopia's Foreign Ministry said that they had held "productive" talks with Kiir and that consultations were continuing. Kiir has agreed to "unconditional dialogue" to try to stop the violence.
- additional reporting AFP