South Sudan violence may prompt US military intervention

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A senior defense official tells NBC News that about 150 U.S. marines have been moved from Moron, Spain to the Horn of Africa.

The marines are assigned to the Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force-Crisis Response, which was created to be able to quickly deploy to shore up security of U.S. interests overseas such as embassies, consulates and evacuations. The marines are in place in Djibouti now. The move is in response to mounting violence between tribal and political factions over this struggling nation’s oil resources that threatens to escalate into a civil war.

If necessary, the U.S. forces  could be deployed in to South Sudan to provide security or assist with civilian evacuations. They will be equipped with MV-22 Ospreys, a hybrid aircraft that takes off vertically like helicopter and flies fixed wing like an airplane.

There is also a Marine Expeditionary Unit off the coast that could be called in if necessary; the 13th MEU, which is part of the Boxer Amphibious Ready Group. The unit has about 2,200 marines and Ospreys for transport.

Neither the Marine Air Ground Task Force or the Marine Expeditionary Unit has been tasked to move in to South Sudan at this point. But they are nearby if needed. President Obama, over the weekend, sent a letter to congressional leaders letting them know he may take further military action in South Sudan to protect U.S. citizens, personnel and property.

U.S. special envoy to South Sudan Donald Booth met with South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir today in an effort to get Kiir and the leader of the opposition, former Vice President Riek Machar, to the negotiating table.

In a statement read on a conference call and reported by the AP, Booth said his discussion with Kiir was “frank and open” and that Kiir said he’d be open to talks without preconditions “as soon as his counterpart was willing.”

Machar is a member of a rival ethnic group who was dismissed as Vice President from the South Sudanese government in July. He has previously said he will not negotiate unless Kiir releases the former Vice President’s detained political allies.

A senior administration official on the call said Americans were still in the country but the exact number is “very hard to get an accurate count on.” It is believed that about 380 Americans and 300 third-country individuals have been evacuated since the violence broke out last week.

A rescue mission Saturday had to be aborted because rebel forces started firing at the U.S. rescue aircraft. Four U.S. service personnel were wounded in the attack. The injuries were reported not to be life threatening. The official said that “discussions with rebel commanders in Bor” happened over the last 24 hours to “allow the U.N. to fly out American citizens and other nationalities from that area,” without getting fired on.

The official also said no decision has been made as to whether the U.S. will suspend any aid to South Sudan, which is mostly in the form of humanitarian assistance, until the fighting stops.

The U.N. has about 7,000 peacekeepers and international police in the world’s newest nation.

South Sudan experienced decades of war with Sudan, which it peacefully broke away from in 2011.