Four U.S. service members were injured yesterday while on flights to evacuate Americans from South Sudan, prompting the Obama administration to urge the strife-torn country’s opposing interests to negotiate.
The aircraft, three CV-22 Ospreys, were fired upon as they approached Bor, the capital of Jonglei state, where two Indian peacekeepers and at least 11 civilians were killed Dec. 19. A spokesman for South Sudan’s army, Philip Aguer, blamed rebel forces for the attack, while the United States Africa Command said the small-arms fire came from unknown forces.
President Barack Obama, on vacation in Hawaii, discussed the situation in a conference call yesterday with National Security Adviser Susan Rice, Deputy National Security Advisers Tony Blinken and Ben Rhodes, and Senior Director for African Affairs Grant Harris, according to a statement released by the White House.
The U.S. called on both sides to find a peaceful solution to the conflict. “Any effort to seize power through the use of military force will result in the end of longstanding support from the United States and the international community,” the statement said.
The U.S. crew’s mission was aborted and the three aircraft were diverted to Uganda, the U.S. command known as AFRICOM said. The troops were being treated for their injuries and were in stable condition. About 45 U.S. soldiers have been deployed to South Sudan, the world’s newest nation, to protect American personnel and the embassy.
The United Nations also sent helicopters to evacuate staff from South Sudan. One was hit and forced to land Dec. 20 though no injuries were reported, according to the Associated Press.
Fighting in South Sudan that broke out Dec. 15 has claimed as many as 500 lives. A rebel force linked to deposed Vice President Riek Machar and led by General James Kong Chol captured Bor last week and said it has taken control of the oil-rich nation.
“The general is acting as the governor and he’s the commander in the area,” State Speaker James Nyuany Chakuoth said in a telephone interview.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Dec. 20 that he was dispatching a special envoy, Ambassador Donald Booth, to the region. He called South Sudan President Salva Kiir and asked him to “work toward reconciliation,” Kerry said in a statement.
“Now is the time for South Sudan’s leaders to rein in armed groups under their control, immediately cease attacks on civilians, and end the chain of retributive violence between different ethnic and political groups,” Kerry said. “The violence must stop, the dialogue must intensify.”
Machar, accused of trying to overthrow the government, is being hunted by security forces. He has called for Kiir to step down for failing to unite the nation. Machar and the rest of Kiir’s cabinet were fired in July by the president.
The United Nations Security Council expressed “grave alarm and concern regarding the rapidly deteriorating security and humanitarian crisis in South Sudan” and urged Kiir and Machar to find a swift solution.
Landlocked South Sudan has sub-Saharan Africa’s third-largest oil reserves after Nigeria and Angola, according to the BP Statistical Review. It exports about 220,000 barrels of oil a day through pipelines across Sudan. Total SA has a stake in an oil-exploration concession in Jonglei, an eastern state bordering Ethiopia.
Kenya, which in 2005 helped settle a two-decade civil war in Sudan, sent six mediators to help end the fighting, joining representatives of other East African nations.
Retired Kenyan military general, Elijah Sumbeiywo, who helped broker the initial peace deal is part of the new team of mediators, Kenya’s presidential spokesman said yesterday in an e-mailed statement.
“As a neighbor with knowledge of the South Sudan and who has worked closely with the government there, the government has sent additional mediators to help with the dialogue,” spokesman Manoah Esipisu said.
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta has also ordered the immediate delivery of food, water and medicine to South Sudan to assist tackle the emergency, Esipisu said.
A peacekeeping force should be deployed in South Sudan to help end the fighting, former Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga said in an e-mailed statement.
“I appeal the UN and U.S. to immediately deploy a neutral force in all parts of South Sudan without hesitation,” Odinga said.