President Barack Obama is sending five American military officers to South Sudan amid recent outbreaks of violence in the newly independent African nation.
The White House said the U.S. forces will join the United Nations mission in the capital of Juba and focus on strategic planning and operations. They are not expected to engage in combat operations, but will be armed for personal protection.
Obama issued a memorandum Tuesday declaring that the U.S. officers could not be prosecuted by the International Criminal Court during their deployment because South Sudan is not a party to the ICC. The White House said prior administrations used similar designations when sending U.S. forces to United Nations missions in Haiti and Liberia.
The first of the small group of U.S. forces is expected to depart for South Sudan later this week. The Pentagon said there were no plans to expand the U.S. contribution to the U.N. mission.
Since gaining independence in July, South Sudan has been beset by internal conflict. Aid groups estimate that 60,000 people have been affected by recent outbreaks of violence, and the U.N. says tens of thousands have fled their homes and are in urgent need of high-nutritional food, clean water, health care and shelter.
Violence also has simmered on the new border with Sudan. The two countries have not yet agreed to terms to share the region's oil wealth.
In response to the violence, Obama issued a separate memorandum last week giving the U.S. the ability to send weapons and defense assistance to South Sudan.
The U.S. strongly supported South Sudan's drive for independence and sought to boost the fledgling nation, in part through agriculture assistance and private investment. The Obama administration also has authorized American investment in South Sudan's oil sector.
The small deployment of U.S. forces to South Sudan is in contrast to Obama's decision in October to send about 100 U.S. troops to Africa to help fight the Lord's Resistance Army guerrilla group in Uganda and elsewhere in Central Africa. The bulk of that deployment was of special operations troops to provide security and combat training to African units as they tried to hunt down the LRA's leader, Joseph Kony.
AP National Security Writer Robert Burns contributed to this report.