Pentagon: More Americans evacuated from South Sudan

Last Updated Jan 3, 2014 2:25 PM EST

WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon says Marines used a KC-130 cargo plane to evacuate about 20 Americans from the U.S. Embassy in Juba, South Sudan, in a move prompted by what the State Department calls a deteriorating security situation.

Pentagon spokesman Army Col. Steve Warren says the KC-130 flew from Entebbe, Uganda, on Friday, picked up the Americans and returned to Entebbe. He said that Two KC-130s made the trip but only one landed.

Warren also said the Pentagon believes it has sufficient personnel and assets in the region to respond to any further State Department requests for assistance in Juba.

The embassy has already organized about a dozen flights since fighting broke out in December. It will no longer provide consular services in South Sudan, the world's newest nation, as of Saturday.

"The U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya will provide consular services for U.S. citizens in South Sudan until further notice," the State Department said in a statement early Friday. "We continue to strongly recommend that U.S. citizens in South Sudan depart immediately."

Fighting broke out in the capital of South Sudan on Dec. 15 and quickly radiated across the country as two main ethnic groups began attacking each other. The central government is afraid that rebels loyal to ousted Vice President Riek Machar are preparing to march to the capital, Juba, from Bor, the capital of Jonglei state.

The warring factions held preliminary meetings Friday in neighboring Ethiopia, mediators said.

South of Bor, thousands of families have been fleeing to the Nile River region of Awerial. Families are now camping out in the shade below any tree they can find. Aid groups estimate that perhaps between 60,000 and 75,000 people have streamed out of Bor in search of safety from the armed Lou Nuer, a group seen as loyal to Machar.

South Sudan peacefully broke away from Sudan in 2011 following a 2005 peace deal that ended a decades-long war. But now fighting has erupted in South Sudan along ethnic lines.

Toby Lanzer, the U.N.'s top humanitarian official in South Sudan, said Friday that the situation around Awerial is difficult.

"We're working to get as much aid to civilians there as possible," he wrote on Twitter. The International Red Cross says Awerial is the "largest single identified concentration of displaced people in the country so far."

Deng Ghai Deng, 19, fled Bor and crossed the Nile with his sister. He said fighting in Bor killed many, and he complained that the displaced families have no safe drinking water, food or shelter.

"Some of the children, even the small kids they are starving in the forest in Jonglei state," he said. "They don't have transport so they can cross the river into Lakes state where I am now. The situation is really very bad. My mum and dad, they are still in Jonglei state, they are still in the forest. They will not come because of money."

The U.S. announced an additional $50 million in funding assistance, including for U.N. programs and the International Red Cross. The international community says at least 180,000 people have been displaced in the fighting. A conservative estimated death toll stands at least 1,000 people.

President Salva Kiir insists the fighting was sparked by a coup attempt mounted by soldiers loyal to Machar on Dec. 15. But that account has been disputed by some officials of the ruling party who say the violence began when presidential guards from Kiir's Dinka ethnic group tried to disarm those from the Nuer group of Machar. From there, violence spread across the country, with forces loyal to Machar defecting and seizing territory from loyalist forces.

South Sudan has been plagued by ethnic tension and a power struggle within the ruling party that escalated after Kiir dismissed Machar as his vice president in July. The rebels back Machar, who is now a fugitive sought by the military.

Dina Mufti, a spokesman for Ethiopia's Foreign Ministry, said the introductory meetings in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, were necessary to bridge the groups' differences ahead of direct talks expected to start Saturday.