Eight days after a mutiny in South Sudan’s capital signaled the start of “unrest” (as reporters euphemistically phrase it), it was reported Monday that additional U.S. troops would be sent to Africa in preparation for possible further action. Four U.S. troops were wounded Saturday when rebels fired on an evacuation flight to the key South Sudanese town of Bor, about 125 miles north of the capital, Juba.
“Defense officials say the U.S. is moving additional Marines and aircraft from Spain to the Horn of Africa to provide embassy security and help with evacuations from violence-wracked South Sudan,” the Associated Press reported. “A defense official says the extra forces moving to Djibouti will bring the total U.S. troops there to 150, with 10 aircraft, including Osprey helicopters and C-130 transport planes.”
Djibouti is on the east coast of Africa next to Ethiopia, nearly 2,000 miles by road from Juba, and it was not clear how many of the U.S. troops would actually be sent to South Sudan. A Pentagon spokesman said the commander of U.S. Africa Command is “repositioning his forces in the region to ensure that we’ve got capabilities necessary to respond to any request from the State Department.”
The violence in South Sudan stems from both political and tribal rivalries in a mainly Christian nation that fought a decades-long war to gain its independence from Sudan’s Muslim-dominated government in Khartoum. (Heritage Foundation analyst Charlotte Florance has compiled a helpful background report on South Sudan.) In July, President Salvar Kiir ousted his vice president Riek Machar and, after Sunday’s mutiny in Juba, Kiir accused Machar of attempting a coup. Machar initially denied this, but on Saturday, Machar admitted that he is leading the rebellion against Kiir’s government. Rebel forces captured Bor in Jonglei state and also took control of Bentiu, capital of Unity state, a key oil-producing region. (See this map by Agence France-Presse.)
“The situation is particularly bad in Jonglei and Unity states, where fighting has displaced thousands of civilians,” Toby Lanzer, the U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator for South Sudan, said in a statement Monday. “I just returned from Bor, where an estimated 17,000 people have sought protection in the UN peacekeeping base. While there, I witnessed firsthand the harrowing results of the intense violence that has swept the area.” In an interview with the BBC, Lanzer said people in Bor “were being lined up and executed in a summary fashion. This is done by people who are simply out of control.”
Estimates are that as many as a thousand people have been killed so far. There are reports of tribal violence between the Dinka and Nuer ethnic groups. “It was Sudanese killing Sudanese,” an evacuated Pakistani oil engineer told the Guardian’s Daniel Howden, describing the violence in Unity state. “They were killing each other with stones and knives,” The number of civilian refugees from the fighting is reported at upwards of 60,000. President Kiir announced Monday that South Sudan’s army was about to go on the offensive against the rebels in Bor. Journalistic qualms about whether South Sudan is “on the verge” of a civil war now appear obsolete: This is a civil war, whether we call it one or not.
“It is a tragedy beyond comprehension,” Talk Radio News correspondent Ellen Ratner wrote Monday. “Hopefully the United States and the international community can exert pressure to bring all sides to the table to stop this needless war and conflict that traumatizes its citizens and only strengthens its enemies from the neighboring Sudan.”
What remains to be seen is how President Obama will respond to further developments in the South Sudan crisis. His response so far has been criticized as ineffective. “Issuing strongly worded statements is NOT policy,” activist Elizabeth Blackney commented Monday on Twitter. “Feelings aren’t policy.”