The United States has sent elements of the East Africa Response Force to Juba, the capital of South Sudan, and is working to evacuate non-essential embassy personnel, US nationals, and others from the country. Violence has spread since the government reported Monday that it had “quashed” an alleged coup attempt. President Salva Kiir made the announcement on national television in full military dress instead of his normal civilian attire. Martial law was subsequently declared and the UN estimates that some five hundred people have been killed since the the fighting started.
President Kiir said today that he is willing to hold talks with former Vice President Riek Machar, who he says is behind the coup attempt. Riek Machar, a member of the country’s Nuer ethnic group, was also a member of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) leadership before South Sudan became an indepedent nation in 2011 and the SPLM became the country’s dominant political party. Machar has since become an opposition political figure, claiming to represent the Nuer in a government said to be dominated by the country’s main ethnic group, the Dinka. President Kiir is a member of the Dinka ethnic group and there are concerns that the violence could expand into outright inter-ethnic conflict. The UN, which maintains a peacekeeping mission in the country, the UN Mission in the Republic of South Sudan (UNMISS), has called on all parties to refrain from actions that could incite ethnic tensions.
However, the violence currently appears to be spreading, with reports of clashes occurring outside the capital and its immediate surroundings. This is what led the US Department of State to first recommend that US citizens evacuate the country as soon as possible and subsequently provide assistance for them in doing so. Today, the Department of State reported that US Air Force C-130s and a private charter aircraft had departed the country carrying evacuees, and added that it would continue to work to help arrange transportation for those wishing to leave. Other countries are conducting similar efforts to evacuate their nationals and others wishing to leave.
In addition, the US deployed elements of the relatively new East Africa Response Force (EARF), a joint task force co-located with Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) in Djibouti, to provide additional physical security for diplomatic facilities. Currently, the core element of the EARF is the US Army’s 1st Battalion, 63d Armor Regiment. The battalion is assigned to the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division. In 2012, it was announced that 2/1st Infantry would be aligned with US Africa Command (AFRICOM) as part of a new initiative to align US-based brigade combat teams on a rotating basis with geographic component commands. 2/1st Infantry was the first brigade combat team to be so aligned and 1-63d Armor was the first unit from the brigade to deploy in support of this new mission. The EARF conducted a readiness exercise in November, simulating response to a contingency at an embassy in the region. Response to such a scenario has become a major focus of regional planning following the events at the US consulate in Benghazi in September 2012.
Correction (12/23/13): By December 14th, 1-63d Armor had in fact conducted a relief in place transfer of authority with 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment, also part of 2/1st Infantry. It was soldiers from 1-18th Infantry that formed the core of the EARF when elements were deployed to South Sudan.