NAIROBI, Kenya – 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 were “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 statement said. “The injured troops are being treated for their wounds.” It was not known how many U.S. civilians are in Bor.
After the aircraft took incoming fire, they turned around and flew to Entebbe, Uganda. From there the service members were flown to Nairobi, Kenya, aboard a U.S. Air Force C-17 for medical treatment, the statement said.
An official in the region said the Americans did not tell the top commander in Bor – Gen. Peter Gadet, who defected from the South Sudan military last week – that they were coming in, which may have led to the attack. The U.S. statements said the gunfire was from unknown forces.
South Sudan’s military spokesman, Col. Philip Aguer, said government troops are not in control of Bor, so the attack on the U.S. aircraft has 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 U.S. Embassy in Juba said it evacuated at least 450 Americans and other foreign nationals from Juba last week and had hoped to begin evacuations from Bor. The U.S. Ospreys were hit one day after small-arms fire downed a U.N. helicopter in the same state.
The U.N. on Friday sent four helicopters to extract 40 U.N. peacekeepers from a base in Yuai, also in Jonglei, U.N. information officer Joe Contreras said. One helicopter was fired upon and executed an emergency landing in Upper Nile state, he said. No casualties occurred during the incident.
South Sudan’s information minister, Michael Makuei Lueth, said South Sudanese ground troops, backed by the country’s air force, are fighting rebels in Bor, 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 U.N. compound.”
South Sudan President Salva Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, said last week that an attempted coup triggered the violence now pulsing through South Sudan. He blamed the former vice president, Machar, an ethnic Nuer.
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.