WASHINGTON (AP) — The United States ordered nonemergency government personnel to leave South Sudan and suspended normal operations at its embassy there Tuesday as political and social unrest continued to confront the fledgling African nation.
The State Department also warned U.S. citizens not to travel to South Sudan and recommended that Americans in the country depart immediately. Routine consular services normally provided by the U.S. Embassy in Juba have been halted, although the embassy was still accepting requests for emergency assistance from Americans.
"U.S. citizens who choose to stay in South Sudan despite this warning should review their personal security situation and seriously reconsider their plans to remain," the department said in a travel warning.
The announcement came as South Sudan remains on edge as its military hunts soldiers suspected of mounting a coup attempt on Sunday, sparking gunfights. Gunfire continued to ring out Tuesday in Juba, South Sudan's capital.
The fighting has forced about 13,000 people to seek refuge at United Nations facilities, the U.N. said. A senior Ministry of Health official said at least 26 people, mostly soldiers, have died in the violence, although other groups put the casualties in the hundreds.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the U.S. is "deeply concerned" about the situation and that President Barack Obama is being briefed on developments there. Carney called on South Sudan's government to open critical points of entry and exit, including the airport, as the U.S. works to remove embassy personnel from the country.
The oil-rich East African nation has been plagued by ethnic tension since it broke away from Sudan in 2011.
"Circumstances there have gotten worse," Carney said, adding that the recent violence moves the nation further from its goal of forging an inclusive, peaceful democratic state. But he said if South Sudan makes the right choices going forward, "we are confident it can get back on track."
The State Department urged Americans planning travel to South Sudan to check for updates on its website and to notify the State Department in advance. U.S. citizens in South Sudan who need consular services should contact U.S. embassies in Uganda, Ethiopia or Kenya.
State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said the U.S. urged the country's political leaders to refrain from doing anything that might further escalate tensions. "The people of South Sudan have endured too many years of conflict and sacrificed far too much for their country to be plunged back into turmoil," she said.
Asked whether there was any doubt that the social unrest was the result of a coup, Harf acknowledged that there have been conflicting reports and that the situation remained volatile. "It's still premature to say what sparked the violence," she said. "Until we have a better sense of the situation that's unfolding, I'm not going to characterize it one way or the other."
She said the U.S. was talking to the government about helping Americans leave.
"We're still looking at logistics for ... our order departure, but we're also reviewing all available options to assist U.S. citizens who may wish to depart South Sudan," Harf said. "We've called on the government to open points of entry."
State Department travel warnings: http://travel.state.gov