Washington: US aircraft flying into a heavily contested region of South Sudan to evacuate US citizens were attacked on Saturday and forced to turn back without completing the mission, US officials said. Four service members were wounded, one seriously.
South Sudan officials said the attack had been carried out by rebel forces.
President Barack Obama had sent 45 US servicemen to South Sudan to "support the security of US personnel and our embassy," he said on Thursday. Previous evacuation flights had been organised in Juba, the capital, but the aborted mission on Saturday appeared to be the first into rebel-held territory.
US Army soldiers of the East Africa Response Force in Djibouti prepare to load onto a US Air Force C-130 Hercules. Photo: AP
The military sent three CV-22 Ospreys - tilt-rotor aircraft that can fly like an airplane and land like a helicopter - to evacuate US citizens from a UN compound in Bor, the capital of Jonglei state. The United States has not said how many Americans were there or whether they were in immediate danger.
As the aircraft approached the town, "they were fired on by small-arms fire by unknown forces," the military said in a statement. All three aircraft were damaged.
Afterward, the mission was aborted and the Ospreys flew about 500 miles (804 kilometres) to Entebbe, Uganda. One US service member was seriously wounded and taken to Nairobi, Kenya, where he was said to be in surgery on Saturday evening. Three others were reported to have minor injuries, US officials said.
As South Sudan has been racked by attacks, there have been mounting concerns about the plight of 35,000 civilians who have sought sanctuary at UN peacekeeping bases in the country. Some 14,000 civilians are reported to have sought refuge at a base in Bor that is surrounded by 2000 armed youths, spurring fears that the base may be overrun and the lives of aid workers there threatened.
US officials had little to say about the plight of the civilians remaining at the UN compound, including Americans.
On Friday night, Secretary of State John Kerry issued a statement saying that he had called Salva Kiir, the president of South Sudan, to urge him to "protect all South Sudanese citizens and work toward reconciliation."
"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," Mr Kerry said in his statement. "The violence must stop, the dialogue must intensify."
To encourage such efforts, Donald E. Booth, the United States' special envoy for Sudan and South Sudan, left for the region Friday.
Bor is in an especially violent region that is no longer controlled by government forces, according to Colonel Philip Aguer, a spokesman for the South Sudan military.
Mr Kiir, a member of the Dinka ethnic group, has attributed the violence to an attempted coup by a former vice president, Riek Machar, who is a member of the rival Nuer ethnic group.
Earlier this week, Mr Obama sent troops to protect the US Embassy in Juba. The United States has also organised flights to evacuate US citizens from the capital, as have European nations.
But thousands of civilians remain at risk, as do UN peacekeepers. The danger was underscored by an attack on Thursday in which 2000 armed youths of Nuer ethnicity overran a base in the town of Akobo, killing Dinka civilians and two Indian peacekeepers who tried to protect them.
Hilde F. Johnson, the top UN official in the country, said in a written statement, "I deplore this unjustified and unwarranted attack on the United Nations Mission base in Akobo, killing peacekeepers that were here to protect civilians and serve the people of South Sudan."
The UN peacekeeping force in the country is formally known as the UN Mission in South Sudan, or UNMISS. It has about 6800 soldiers and 700 police officers.
The US Africa Command has responsibility for the region. It issued a terse statement Saturday morning on the attempted evacuation at Bor.
"We can confirm that three US service members were injured today from gunfire directed at their aircraft in South Sudan," the statement said. "The aircraft was participating in a mission to evacuate American citizens in Bor. After receiving fire from the ground while approaching the site, the aircraft diverted to an airfield outside the country and aborted the mission. The injured troops are being treated for their wounds."
Isma'il Kushkush contributed reporting from Khartoum, Sudan
New York Times