US aircraft hit by gunfire as S.Sudan fighting spreads to oil fields

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President Salva Kiir (R) and rebels allied to former vice-president Riek Machar (L)Four US soldiers were wounded Saturday when their aircraft came under fire in South Sudan, amid intensifying fighting between soldiers loyal to President Salva Kiir (R) and rebels allied to former vice-president Riek Machar (L).

What apparently began as a coup attempt in capital Juba last week-end threatens to turn into a full-blown civil war, with reports of fighting spreading to the country’s vital oil fields.

The four US troops wounded were part of a convoy of three aircraft headed to the city of Bor to evacuate US nationals

They came under fire while approaching the evacuation site, the military’s Africa Command said in a statement.

“The aircraft diverted to an airfield outside the country and aborted the mission,” it added.

The wounded were then flown to Nairobi for medical treatment and are now in “stable condition”, according to a statement released by the Pentagon said.

All of the three Osprey CV-22 aircraft involved in the mission had been damaged, the statement said.

The incident prompted US President Barack Obama to warn that any move to take power by military means would lead to an end of US and international community support for South Sudan.

Obama stressed that South Sudanese leaders “have a responsibility to support our efforts to secure American personnel and citizens in Juba and Bor”, the capital and a rebel-held flashpoint town.

The United States said it had deployed 45 troops on Wednesday to protect US personnel and assets in South Sudan.

Violence erupted in the country after a meeting last week of leaders of the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) failed to ease tensions in the party. South Sudan President Salva Kiir has accused Machar, whom he fired in July along with his entire cabinet, of staging an attempted coup. The former vice president has denied the charge, but his whereabouts are unknown.

Fighting reaches oil fields

Fighting between the rival factions appears to have reached the country’s vital oil fields following the alleged defection of a senior army commander.

South Sudan’s army spokesman Philip Aguer confirmed on Saturday that contact had been lost with a commander in oil-producing Unity state, across the border from Sudan.

Aguer added there were reports the army commander had joined the forces of fugitive former vice-president Riek Machar.

The loss of the oil fields would prove a major blow to the government and could lead to an escalation in the conflict, according to analysts.

“The potential for oil wealth to exacerbate the current power struggle should not be underestimated,” said Emma Vickers of Global Witness, an international campaign group.

“If rebel forces were to capture the oil fields, they could effectively hold the government to ransom.”

Even as diplomatic initiatives were multiplying in South Sudan, the death toll continued to climb as violence spread between rival ethnic groups.

Six days into the battles between followers of Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, and Machar, a Nuer, at least 500 people have been killed in Juba alone.

United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon called Sunday for an immediate end to the violence and for leaders to seek a peaceful solution to the conflict.

“I demand that all political, military and militia leaders stop hostilities and end the violence against the civilians,” Ban told a news briefing on a visit to the Philippines.

He called on Kiir and Machar, to “find a political way out of this crisis” and order their followers to lay down arms.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)

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