WASHINGTON — American citizens were evacuated from a contested area of South Sudan on Sunday after a local rebel commander provided assurances that there would be no interference, Western officials said.
The evacuation, which involved about 15 Americans, was carried out by helicopter from the UN compound in Bor, in Jonglei state, which is surrounded by 2,000 armed youths.
It came one day after US special operations forces tried to evacuate the Americans there, only to turn back after the three Osprey aircraft being used for the mission ran into heavy small-arms fire. Four US service members were wounded in that episode.
“We were able to evacuate all Americans who presented themselves at the UN camp in Bor,” a State Department official said. “We will continue to work to confirm whether there are any remaining American citizens in Bor who need to be evacuated.”
The Sunday evacuation suggests that rebel commanders in that area of Jonglei state maintain sufficient control of their troops to facilitate the safe departure of the Americans at the compound.
But it also raised the question of why the United States needed to attempt the previous mission using Osprey aircraft, which can fly like an airplane and land like a helicopter, and whether the diplomatic groundwork with rebel commanders and South Sudanese officials for the aborted Saturday operation had been adequately prepared.
In a letter to congressional leaders Sunday, President Obama said 46 US service members took part in Saturday’s mission. Obama also said he might take “further action” to support Americans and interests in the contested region.
The Sunday evacuation encountered no resistance and was carried out using two pairs of helicopters — one pair from the United Nations and another operated by a civilian contractor.
So far, the United States has evacuated about 380 US officials and private citizens and about 300 foreign citizens from South Sudan, Jen Psaki, the State Department spokeswoman, said in a statement.
The developments came as rebels in South Sudan took control of the capital of Unity, a northern oil-producing state, the government said Sunday.
“Bentiu is not currently in our hands,” South Sudan’s government said in a post on its official Twitter account about the rebels’ seizure. “It is in the hands of a commander who has declared support for Machar,” a reference to the former vice president, Riek Machar, who was accused of leading a coup attempt against President Salva Kiir last week.
Machar denied the charge, but the accusation set off clashes between military factions in Juba, the national capital, and other parts of the country, raising the specter of a broader conflict.
Bentiu is the capital of Unity state, from where oil flows through pipelines north into Sudan for export. South Sudan gained independence from Sudan in 2011. It has most of the oil, but the pipelines, refinery and port needed to export it are in Sudan.
Since last week, hundreds of people have been killed and tens of thousands displaced by fighting that has taken on an ethnic dimension, according to the United Nations and human rights groups. Kiir belongs to the majority Dinka ethnic group, and Machar, who was removed from office over the summer by Kiir, is a Nuer.
In Juba, South Sudanese forces have killed members of the Nuer group, and in Jonglei state, members of Nuer militias have attacked the Dinka.
On Sunday, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Juba said that about 62,000 people had been displaced because of the recent violence in South Sudan and were seeking refuge at UN peacekeeping bases in the country.