Four U.S. troops hurt attempting to evacuate Americans from South Sudan

Posted at 12:02 PM, Dec 21, 2013
and last updated 2013-12-21 12:15:22-05

(CNN) – Four U.S. service members who were about to help evacuate Americans from violence-hit South Sudan were injured when gunfire hit their aircraft as they tried to land in Bor on Saturday, the Pentagon said.

The attack thwarted the evacuation attempt, and the three CV-22 Osprey were diverted to Uganda, where a different aircraft received the wounded troops for transfer to Kenya for medical treatment, a U.S. military official said on condition of anonymity.

Details about their injuries weren’t immediately available; the official described their conditions as stable.

After the incident, the Pentagon was trying to determine how to retry the evacuations of roughly three dozen Americans from South Sudan, where they were working for the United Nations, a senior U.S. official said on condition of anonymity.

The troops were trying to land in Bor when gunfire from the ground hit the aircraft, Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said.

The evacuation attempt came after days of deadly clashes in South Sudan, including a reported coup attempt in the capital, Juba, last weekend. Bor also has been the site of heavy fighting, the U.S. official said.

The violence prompted the United States and other nations to take steps to protect their citizens. U.S. President Barack Obama had sent 45 service members to South Sudan to support U.S. personnel and the American Embassy; the government of neighboring Kenya said it would send troops to help evacuate 1,600 Kenyan citizens.

South Sudanese President Salva Kiir blamed soldiers loyal to his former vice president, Riek Machar, for starting the violence.

Tensions have been high in South Sudan — which became the world’s newest country when it split from Sudan two years ago — since Kiir dismissed Machar and the rest of the Cabinet in July. The move inflamed deep tensions between Kiir’s Dinka community and Machar’s Nuer community.

Casualties are in the hundreds, including soldiers, the government said.

A day before Saturday’s aborted evacuation attempt, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said he was sending a special envoy — Ambassador Donald Booth — to South Sudan.

“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 in a statement. “The violence must stop, the dialogue must intensify.”

Also on Friday, U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice recorded an audio message to the South Sudanese people.

“I ask each of you to make the choice for peace — make the choice for a unified and cohesive South Sudan,” she said. “Make this choice for yourselves and your children.”

Saturday’s violence wasn’t the first to harm foreign troops in South Sudan this week. Attackers killed two Indian army peacekeepers, wounded a third one in the chest, and killed at least two refuge-seeking civilians in an assault on the United Nations’ Akobo base Thursday, the U.N. said.

As many as 20 of the 30 civilians seeking refuge there might have been killed, U.N. officials estimated.

South Sudan became the world’s newest country in July 2011 when it gained independence from Sudan.

The split happened after a 2005 peace agreement ended years of civil war between the largely Animist and Christian south and the Muslim-dominated north. The deal led to a January 2011 referendum in which people of the south voted to secede from Sudan.