Israeli aid workers airlifted from South Sudan

Coup attempt continues as military loses control of key rural town to rebels; at least 500 killed in fighting

An IsraAid worker with Sudanese children. (photo credit: courtesy)
An IsraAid worker with Sudanese children. (photo credit: courtesy)

Three Israeli aid workers were airlifted out of South Sudan Wednesday by the United Nations, as political and ethnic violence related to a coup attempt continued in the world’s newest nation state.

The workers, employees of IsraAID, “left with the UN yesterday and are on their way to Israel,” IsraAID director Shachar Zahavi told The Times of Israel on Thursday, adding that they were not harmed in the fighting.

The workers, along with members of other international NGOs, had been sheltered in a closed compound in the capital of Juba on Monday after a group of soldiers attempted to stage a coup d’etat.

Zahavi said that as soon as the situation in South Sudan calms down, “we will go back.” IsraAID is an Israeli aid relief organization that has been active in the Philippines, Jordan, South Sudan and other countries.

The NGO, which established a presence in Juba following independence in 2011, is focused on gender, social development and security sector reform, according to a statement.

South Sudan’s military said Thursday it no longer controlled a key town in a rural state where fighting has spread in the aftermath of what the government says was an attempted coup mounted by soldiers loyal to a former deputy president.

The authorities in Bor, the capital of the state of Jonglei, were not answering their phones, leading the central government to believe they had defected, said Philip Aguer, the South Sudanese military spokesman.

“We lost control of Bor to the rebellion,” he said.

He said there were reported gunfights in Bor overnight as renegade officers tried to wrest control of the town from loyalist forces there.

At least 19 civilians have been killed in violence in Bor, Martin Nesirky, a spokesman for the United Nations secretary-general’s office, said Wednesday, citing figures from the South Sudan Red Cross. He said tensions were also on the rise in the states of Unity and Upper Nile.

Ethnic rivalry is threatening to tear apart the world’s newest country, with the clashes apparently pitting soldiers from the majority Dinka tribe of President Salva Kiir against those from ousted vice president Riek Machar’s Nuer ethnic group. At least 500 people, most of them soldiers, have been killed in violence since the alleged coup attempt Sunday, the government said Wednesday. At least 700 more have been wounded, Information Minister Michael Makuei Lueth said.

Although Juba, the South Sudanese capital where the alleged coup was mounted, has since become calm, violence appears to be spreading to other parts of the oil-rich East African nation.

Tensions have been mounting in South Sudan since Kiir fired Machar as his deputy in July. Machar has said he will contest the presidency in 2015.

Machar himself is the subject of a manhunt by the country’s military after he was identified by Kiir as the leader of an alleged coup attempt on Sunday. Machar has denied he was behind any coup attempt.

Kiir told a news conference in Juba late Wednesday that he was willing to enter talks with Machar, a rival for power within the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement party.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon told reporters Wednesday that South Sudan was experiencing a political crisis that “urgently needs to be dealt with through political dialogue.” Ban said he urged Kiir “to resume dialogue with the political opposition.”

South Sudan has been plagued by ethnic violence since it peacefully broke away from Sudan in 2011 after decades of civil war.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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