NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — Gunfire hit a 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 that gunfire downed a U.N. helicopter the day before.
The U.S. military aircraft was 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 it was hit. One American service member was reported to be in critical condition.
The U.S. military's Africa Command said the aircraft was "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 statement said. "The injured troops are being treated for their wounds." It was not known how many U.S. civilians are in Bor.
Two officials told The Associated Press that after the aircraft took incoming fire, they turned around and flew to Kampala, Uganda. From there the service members were flown to Nairobi, Kenya for medical treatment. The two officials are in East Africa and demanded anonymity to share information not made public.
The military statement did not identify the aircraft taking part in the mission. One official told AP it appeared the aircraft were Ospreys, the type of aircraft that can fly like a helicopter and a plane. A second official said the Americans did not tell the top commander in Bor — Gen. Peter Gadet, who defected from the South Sudan military this week — that they were coming in, which may have led to the attack.
South Sudan's military spokesman, Col. Philip Aguer, said that 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.
The U.S. aircraft was 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.
The U.N. planned to try to evacuate the personnel left behind by ground. A U.N. spokesman didn't answer a phone call or email seeking comment.
South Sudan's information minister, Michael Makuei Lueth, said that 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 earlier this week.
"There is fighting going on in Bor town, yes, because since morning they have continued to attack the civilian population," he said, talking about renegade troops. "They have gone as far as not respecting the U.N. compound."
He said fighting started early Saturday after reports came in that rebels there were shooting indiscriminately at civilians.
"The bodies are sprinkled all over the town," he said. No death toll could be estimated, he said.
South Sudan President Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, said this week that an attempted coup triggered the violence now pulsing through South Sudan. He blamed the former vice president, Machar, an ethnic Nuer. But officials have since said a fight between Dinka and Nuer members of the presidential guard triggered the initial violence late Sunday night. Machar's ouster from the country's No. 2 political position earlier this year had stoked ethnic tensions.
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.
Lueth described Machar as "the rebel leader," saying the forces that control Bor believe they are fighting on his behalf. Machar's whereabouts remain unknown, but he has said in recent interviews that he is in hiding somewhere in South Sudan.
An International Crisis Group expert on South Sudan told The Associated Press on Friday that rebels have taken control of at least some of South Sudan's oil fields, an issue that could bring Sudan into the conflict. South Sudan's oil flows north through Sudan's pipelines, providing Khartoum with much needed income.
The U.N. Security Council on Friday said the weeklong violence could affect neighboring countries and the entire region.
Kenya announced it was sending in Kenyan troops to evacuate 1,600 Kenyans stranded in South Sudan, many of them in Bor.
U.S. President Barack Obama earlier this week dispatched U.S. troops to help protect the U.S. Embassy in the capital, Juba. The U.S. Embassy organized at least five emergency evacuation flights to help U.S. citizens leave the country. Other countries like Britain, Germany and Italy also helped citizens evacuate.
Mediators from East Africa continued to try to help negotiate a peace. Ethiopia's Foreign Ministry said Saturday that they have held "productive" talks with Kiir and that consultations were continuing. Kiir has agreed to "unconditional dialogue" to try to stop the violence.
Associated Press reporters Tom Strong in Washington, D.C. and Rodney Muhumuza in Kampala, Uganda contributed to this report.