The African Union called on Saturday for an immediate ceasefire in South Sudan, where U.N. staff say hundreds of people have been killed in nearly a week of fighting.
In an AU statement, the organization's chairwoman, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma called for an ”immediate humanitarian truce for the Christmas season, as a sign of a commitment by all concerned to the well-being of the people of South Sudan," according to Reuters.
Dlamini-Zuma expressed her sadness for ”the killing of innocent civilians and United Nations peacekeepers in Bor, in the Jonglei State of South Sudan,” and ”condemns these killings as a war crime.”
Earlier on Saturday, a U.S. military aircraft responding to the outbreak of violence in South Sudan was hit by incoming fire, wounding four U.S. service members, officials told The Associated Press.
The aircraft was reportedly heading to Bor, the capital of the state of Jonglei and scene of some of the nation’s worst violence over the last week, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“One of the wounded service members was reported to be in critical condition. Officials said 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,” AP reported.
The news comes after Secretary of State John Kerry announced on Friday the U.S. was sending a special envoy to the violence-plagued nation.
“Now is the time for South Sudan’s leaders to rein in armed groups under their control, immediately cease attacks on civilians, and end the chain of retributive violence between different ethnic and political groups,” Kerry said, as he announced plans to dispatch Ambassador Donald Booth, his special envoy for Sudan and South Sudan, to the region.
The U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice sent out a message to the people of South Sudan on Friday saying, “if individuals or groups seek to take or hold power through force, mass violence, or intimidation, the United States will have no choice but to withdraw our traditional, robust support.
“We urge leaders on all sides to publicly renounce violence, end the fighting, and commit to peaceful dialogue. Ethnic violence must cease immediately. Those who have committed acts of violence against civilians must be held accountable,” Rice said.
Rice’s message comes following almost a week of violent clashes between followers’ of Kiir and his former Vice President Riek Machar. Kiir’s followers are ethnic Dinka, while Machar’s are Nuer.
The recent clashes have killed at least 500 people the capital Juba alone. One of the attacks targeted a United Nations base, killing a minimum of 11 civilians and two Indian peacekeepers.
In another development, a U.N. helicopter trying to evacuate peacekeepers and civilians was fired on and sustained significant damage on Friday in the same restive South Sudan state where the U.S. aircraft was hit, two officials told the Associated Press on Saturday.
Rob McKee of security firm Warrior Security said the U.N. helicopter was hit by small arms fire and made an emergency landing while trying to evacuate personnel from a base in Yuai in Jonglei state.
Another official who insisted on anonymity said the helicopter was abandoned and remains unable to fly. No injuries were reported.
Kenya to evacuate citizens
Meanwhile, Kenya said on Saturday it will send troops to troubled South Sudan to evacuate some 1,600 citizens, with many trapped in the flashpoint rebel-held town of Bor.
President Uhuru Kenyatta has “ordered the KDF (Kenya Defense Force) to commence immediate evacuation of the 1,600 Kenyans stranded in South Sudan,” presidential spokesman Manoah Esipisu said in a statement.
“Despite the relative calm in Juba, a number of other South Sudan towns have come under fire,” he added, saying that Kenyans “are mainly in the town of Bor.”
Doubts in Khartoum
In the Sudanese capital Khartoum, dozens of buses queued for fuel Saturday at Khartoum-area petrol stations but it was unclear if the diesel shortage was linked to fighting in the oil fields of South Sudan.
Between 35 and 50 minibuses, which move passengers throughout the Sudanese capital, lined up to buy diesel, according to AFP.
"I have been here with my bus for three hours waiting to get fuel," bus driver Ahmed Omer told AFP.
Sudan's Information Minister Ahmed Bilal Osman on Friday expressed concern over the fate of vital oil flow from South Sudan as fighting between rival army factions spreads there.
But "so far, there is no effect" on oil moving through Sudan, Osman said on Friday.