JUBA , South Sudan, July 13 (UPI) — About 40 U.S. soldiers were rushed to Juba, the capital city of South Sudan, to speed the evacuation of embassy personnel and American citizens caught in renewed fighting between rival ethnic groups, the U.S. State Department announced Wednesday.
The troops, from the U.S. Africa Command’s Crisis Response Force, will protect the U.S. Embassy and help evacuate non-essential embassy staff, said Samantha Reho, spokeswoman of the U.S. Africa Command.
The U.S. State Department announced an “ordered departure” of the embassy of non-essential employees, earlier this week, as fighting between rival ethnic groups loyal to South Sudan’s president and vice president erupted again as the country reached the fifth anniversary of its independence from Sudan.
“[The troops] are here to protect the embassy and to help us provide support for those Americans who want to depart from South Sudan at this time,” U.S. Ambassador Molly Phee to South Sudan said in an interview with the U.N. Mission in South Sudan. “The reason [the troops] are here is to provide me and my team with support so we can continue to help resolve the crisis and provide humanitarian assistance to the people of South Sudan.”
Although a tentative ceasefire was ordered Monday, nearly 300 people were reported killed in fighting in the capital, and the United Nations said more than 36,000 people have been displaced since fighting started last week. There have been reports that camps set up for displaced residents have been shelled, though it’s not clear if they were intentionally targeted.
The U.N. has about 12,000 peacekeeping troops and police officers in the country, and the Security Council is ready to ask for more from neighboring nations, according to U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power. Two U.N. peacekeepers have been reported killed in the new clashes.
Vice President Riek Machar reported on Twitter that forces loyal to rival President Salva Kiir launched helicopter gunship attacks on his forces Monday.
The conflict has been simmering for several years, and although clashes have occurred across the country, it is feared heavy fighting in the capital is indicative of the start of a larger-scale conflict.
The three years of violence has killed at least 50,000, with more than 2 million civilians displaced and nearly 5 million facing severe food shortages, according to CNN.
The International Committee of the Red Cross released an update on conditions in the country on Tuesday after South Sudan Red Cross teams were able to reach seven areas of one area in the capital on Monday.
The ICRC reports its teams delivered several days’ worth of food to patients, staff and civilians who took shelter in an orthopedic clinic, plus more than 100 civilians, mostly women and children, who took shelter in the city’s Red Cross compound. They also delivered food to more than 3,500 people hiding in two churches.
Teams also delivered medicine and supplies to a hospital treating the wounded and began the removal of bodies in the capital. The Red Cross also reported providing aid to residents elsewhere in the country, including the town of Wau where rural residents have taken shelter to escape the fighting.
All of the ICRC’s work is contingent on the security situation, which remains fluid.