President Obama warned Tuesday that South Sudan “stands at the precipice” of civil war as U.S. Marines and other troops stood ready to help evacuate foreign nationals trapped in the bloodletting between rival ethnic factions.
In messages to the South Sudanese people, Obama appealed for peace, saying that “the future is at risk” amid reports that mass graves have been found in Juba, the capital, and elsewhere in the world’s newest independent state.
“South Sudan stands at the precipice,” Obama said. “Recent fighting threatens to plunge South Sudan back into the dark days of its past.”
“But it doesn’t have to be that way,” Obama said in the message from Hawaii, where he is vacationing with his family. “South Sudan has a choice. Its leaders can end the violence and work to resolve tensions peacefully and democratically.”
About 150 Marines from a quick reaction force based in Moron, Spain, arrived Monday at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, which serves as the hub for U.S. operations in the Horn of Africa.
Pentagon officials have stressed that the Marines and other troops from the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) were there as a precaution and would only be sent into south Sudan to aid in evacuations, if necessary.
Over the weekend, three U.S. CV-22 tilt-rotor Ospreys took ground fire when they attempted to evacuate Americans from the South Sudanese town of Bor. Four U.S. troops aboard the aircraft were wounded and have been listed in stable condition.
On Monday, civilian helicopters evacuated U.S. citizens from Bor, but about 3,000 citizens from countries including Canada, Britain, Australia and Kenya remain trapped there.
Toby Lanzer, the United Nations humanitarian co-ordinator, said that the foreign nationals were among about 15,000 people who have sought protection at the UN base in Bor.
South Sudanese President Salva Kiir claimed on Tuesday that government troops had retaken Bor, which fell last week to rebels loyal to former Vice President Riek Machar, who was sacked by Kiir in July.
Kiir, from South Sudan’s Dinka ethnic group, has accused troops loyal to Machar, from the Nuer community, of attempting to launch a coup to topple the government.
In an urgent message Tuesday to the 15 member states of the UN Security Council, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called for the authorization of an additional 5,500 peacekeeping troops and 400 police officers to be sent to South Sudan.