KAMPALA, Uganda — Gunfire hit three U.S. military aircraft trying to evacuate American citizens in a remote region of South Sudan that on Saturday became a battle ground between the country's military and renegade troops, officials said. Four U.S. service members were wounded in the attack in the same region where gunfire downed a U.N. helicopter the day before.
The U.S. military aircraft were about to land in Bor, the capital of the state of Jonglei and scene of some of the nation's worst violence over the last week, when they were hit. The military said the four wounded troops were in stable condition.
The U.S. military said three CV-22 Ospreys — the kind of aircraft that can fly like a helicopter and plane — were "participating in a mission to evacuate American citizens in Bor." A South Sudan official said violence against civilians there has 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 military's Africa Command said in a statement.
The military initially said three service members were injured in the incident.
The Associated Press citing unnamed sources reported that the aircraft were heading to Bor, the capital of the state of Jonglei and scene of some of the nation's worst violence over the last week. One of the wounded service members was reported to be in critical condition.
The Associated Press reported that after the aircraft took incoming fire, they turned around and headed to Kampala, Uganda. From there the service members flew on to Nairobi, Kenya for medical treatment.
Both officials demanded anonymity to share information not yet made public. Both officials work in East Africa and are in a position to know the information, the news service said.
The U.S. aircraft were hit one day after small arms fire downed a U.N. helicopter in the same state.
Rob McKee, operations manager for Warrior Security, a South Sudan security company, said the U.N. helicopter made an emergency landing while trying to evacuate personnel from a base in Yuai, Jonglei state. A second official who insisted on anonymity because the information hasn't been released said the helicopter was abandoned and remains unable to fly. No injuries were reported.
About 45 U.S. troops have been deployed to South Sudan to protect American personnel and the embassy. Fighting in South Sudan has claimed as many as 500 lives and a rebel force linked to deposed Vice President Riek Machar captured Bor, the capital of Jonglei state, earlier this week.
The conflict threatens to drag the world's newest country into an ethnic civil war just two years after it won independence from Sudan with strong support from successive U.S. administrations.
Hundreds of people have been killed in the fighting that pits loyalists of President Salva Kiir, of the Dinka ethnic group, against those of Machar, a Nuer who was sacked in July and is accused by the government of trying to seize power.
Fighting that spread from the capital, Juba, has now reached vital oilfields and the government said a senior army commander had defected to Machar in the oil-producing Unity State.
After meetings with African mediators on Friday, Kiir's government said on its Twitter feed that it was willing to hold talks with any rebel group. The United States is also sending an envoy to help with talks.
South Sudan's foreign minister, Barnaba Marial Benjamin, told Reuters the African mediators had now been given the go-ahead to meet with Kiir's rivals, including Machar and his allies. They were due to make contact on Saturday.
United Nations staff said hundreds of people have been killed across the country the size of France this week and 35,000 civilians are sheltering at their bases.
Information Minister Michael Makuei told Reuters that an army divisional commander in Unity State, John Koang, had defected and joined Machar, who had named him the governor of the state.
The United Nations said on Friday at least 11 people from the ethnic Dinka group had been killed during an attack by thousands of armed youths from another ethnic group on a U.N. peacekeeping base in Jonglei state. Two Indian peacekeepers died.
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