A reaction force of 150 Marines is poised to enter South Sudan to help protect US Embassy personnel and, if needed, to evacuate the roughly 100 Americans who remain in the country, Pentagon officials say.
The hope is that the US troops can help beef up security amid growing fears of civil war breaking out in the country.
The reaction force was created this past spring in response to the September 2012 attack on the embassy in Benghazi, Libya that killed US Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
“One of the lessons learned from the tragic events in Benghazi was that we needed to be better postured, in order to respond to developing crisis situations, if needed. These precautionary movements will allow us to do just that,” according to a statement from US Africa Command (AFRICOM), which has the lead for US military operations in the region.
So far, some 380 US citizens have been evacuated from the region, along with 300 nationals from other countries.
The troops, based in Moron, Spain, are part of the Marine Air Ground Task Force. “They will be used to protect American interests – be it personnel or the embassy or consulate,” says Capt. Eric Flanagan, a Marine Corps spokesman at the Pentagon.
They also have the capability to conduct noncombatant evacuation operations, known as NEO in military parlance, which is “essentially assisting any citizen in an ordered departure from the region,” Capt. Flanagan says.
It was a step the Pentagon was poised to take, particularly after President Obama gave some indication that he might take “further action” to bolster security for Americans and US interests in the region.
The challenge now is to pinpoint precisely where the Americans are. All of the Americans who made their way to the United Nations camp in the city of Bor, which has become an unstable flashpoint for violence, according to US officials.
“Based on registration, there are American citizens in other towns and areas throughout South Sudan. We are trying to track down how many may still be there,” a senior administration official told CNN. “Many may have gotten out on their own.”
At the same time, US officials introduced a Security Council resolution on Monday to send in more international peacekeepers to the country, where there are currently some 7,600 UN military personnel already. The resolution would increase that number to 13,000.
South Sudan is the newest country in the world, created in 2011, and also one of the poorest. The downward slide toward violence began in July, after South Sudan President Salva Kiir fired his cabinet – including his vice president, Riek Machar – then began a violent crackdown on political opposition forces, accusing them of fomenting a coup attempt.
The rivalry between Mr. Kiir and Mr. Machar, who come from different ethnic groups, threatens to throw the country into civil war. Across the country, an estimated 45,000 citizens of South Sudan are taking refuge in UN compounds in order to escape the violence, according to UN officials.
Still, such compounds have not guaranteed the safety of the South Sudanese. Last week, some 2,000 armed youth fighters overran a UN base, killing a dozen people along with two peacekeepers, according to UN officials.
It was on Saturday that a team of US troops – Navy SEALs, according to the Associated Press – were fired upon during an evacuation mission in the city of Bor, which is home to a UN base that is currently sheltering some 17,000 people from “thousands of encroaching militiamen,” according to The New York Times.
Four members of this US military team were wounded after their aircraft was strafed with small arms fire. They are now recovering at a US military hospital in Germany.
One of the injured US troops “went through some pretty serious surgery,” a senior US official told CNN, adding that all four of the injured are stable and have been able to speak with their families.
The troops were riding in V-22 Osprey aircraft, which have the ability to land vertically like a helicopter in areas with no runways, but to takeoff and fly quickly, like an airplane. This allows the US military to shuttle “very quickly” between, for example, the South Sudan capital of Juba to a city like Bor, Flanagan points out. “They don’t need a 3,000-foot runway. All they need is a little square pad.”
The fact that the four of the approximately 46 aboard were injured has led some to question whether the aircraft was the right choice for the evacuation mission in a hostile environment.
Yet “they were hit with small arms fire and they can continue to operate,” Flanagan says, adding that in combat situations the Ospreys can be accompanied by Cobra helicopters or fighter aircraft “for defensive purposes.”