Four U.S. military personnel were injured early Saturday when a plane being sent to help evacuate Americans from strife-torn South Sudan was struck by gunfire.
The Osprey CV-22 was damaged while approaching the city of Bor. The mission was aborted and the aircraft diverted to Entebbe, Uganda, a military official told NBC News. The injured servicemen were later taken to a hospital in Nairobi, Kenya, where they were in stable condition Saturday. None of their wounds was considered life-threatening.
The shooting came two days after three U.N. peacekeepers were killed in South Sudan. The Indian soldiers are among 500 people killed and 800 wounded in South Sudan since Sunday night, when gunbattles erupted between army factions loyal to the country's president and his former vice president, who are members of different tribes. The conflict has deepened divisions in the two-year-old nation.
South Sudan's military spokesman, Col. Philip Aguer, told The Associated Press that government troops were not in control of Bor, so the attack on the U.S. aircraft has to be blamed on renegade soldiers.
South Sudan President Salva Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, said this week that an attempted coup triggered the violence now pulsing through the country. He blamed the former vice president, Riek Machar, an ethnic Nuer.
Some analysts fear the violence may descend into the kind of ethnic bloodbath not seen since Rwanda in the 1990s.
Roughly 34,000 people have sought refuge in U.N. camps, and the U.S. and other countries are evacuating non-essential embassy staff and citizens.
Earlier this week, President Barack Obama said in a letter to Congress that 45 military personnel had been dispatched to South Sudan on Wednesday to protect U.S. citizens and property.
In a statement released Friday, Secretary of State John Kerry said that the international community was "laser-focused on the deeply alarming violence in South Sudan."
Kerry added: "Now is the time for South Sudan's leaders to rein in armed groups under their control, immediately cease attacks on civilians, and end the chain of retributive violence between different ethnic and political groups. The violence must stop, the dialogue must intensify."
The Associated Press and NBC News' Henry Austin contributed to this report.
First published December 21 2013, 5:43 AM