Rebel fire hits US military aircraft in South Sudan

P K BajajIndian envoy P K Bajaj lays flowers on the coffin of one of the Indian peacekeepers killed on Thursday, at a memorial service held on the UNMISS compound in Juba Saturday. (Reuters)

United States aircraft flying into a heavily contested region of South Sudan to evacuate American citizens were attacked Saturday and forced to turn back without completing the mission, American officials said. Four service members were wounded, one seriously.

South Sudan officials said the attack had been carried out by rebel forces.

President Obama had sent 45 American servicemen to South Sudan to "support the security of US personnel and our embassy", he said on Thursday. Previous evacuation flights had been organized in Juba, the capital, but the aborted mission on Saturday appeared to be the first into rebel-held territory.

The military sent three CV-22 Ospreys — tilt-rotor aircraft that fly like an airplane and land like a helicopter — to evacuate American citizens from a United Nations 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 to Entebbe, Uganda. One US service member was seriously wounded and taken to Nairobi, Kenya, where he was said to be in surgery Saturday evening. Three others were reported to have minor injuries, American 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 United Nations peacekeeping bases in the country. Some 14,000 civilians are reported to have sought refuge at a base in Bor that is surrounded by 2,000 armed youths, spurring fears that the base may be overrun and the lives of aid workers there threatened.

American officials had little to say about the plight of the civilians remaining at the United Nations compound, including Americans.

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