WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama warned South Sudan on Saturday that Washington and its allies would cut aid to the country over any attempted military coup, amid growing fears of civil war.
And top US diplomat John Kerry called South Sudanese President Salva Kiir to stress that the renewed violence endangers the independence of the young nation born in July 2011 with backing from the United States, breaking away from Sudan after a five-decade struggle.
Obama also urged South Sudan's leaders to help protect US personnel and citizens in the conflict-ravaged country, after American military aircraft were hit, wounding four servicemembers.
Three US military Osprey aircraft came under fire as they headed to the rebel-held city of Bor in Jonglei state to help evacuate Americans, the Pentagon said.
All four wounded servicemembers were in "stable condition," it added. The targeted Bell Boeing CV-22 Ospreys are hybrid tiltrotor aircraft that can take off vertically like a helicopter but resemble a normal plane in flight.
Obama was updated about the incident aboard Air Force One as he landed overnight in Hawaii for his Christmas vacation.
"He underscored that South Sudan's leaders have a responsibility to support our efforts to secure American personnel and citizens in Juba and Bor," a White House statement said.
"Any effort to seize power through the use of military force will result in the end of longstanding support from the United States and the international community."
Obama separately participated in a secure call about the situation in South Sudan with National Security Adviser Susan Rice, her deputies Tony Blinken and Ben Rhodes, as well as White House Senior Director for African Affairs Grant Harris, also a member of the president's national security team.
"More broadly, the president underscored the urgency of helping to support efforts to resolve the differences within South Sudan through dialogue," the White House added.
"This conflict can only be resolved peacefully through negotiations."
South Sudanese women queue for water being distributed from a UN resevoir at the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) compound in Juba. PHOTO/AFP
It called for an end to the recent surge of violence that has killed at least 500 people in the capital Juba alone in six days of fighting.
"Secretary Kerry made clear that continued violence endangers the vision set forth at the time of South Sudan's independence," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
During their call, Kiir and Kerry "discussed the need to prevent ethnic violence, their concern for the welfare of thousands of internally displaced persons fleeing the conflict, as well as for the safety of US citizens in South Sudan, and they agreed to speak again soon," she added.
Kerry was also sending his special envoy for the Sudans, Donald Booth, to the region to seek a solution to the crisis.
On Wednesday, the United States deployed 45 combat-equipped troops to the country to protect its embassy and American personnel.
Kenya and Uganda have also sent in troops to help evacuate stranded nationals.
Two Indian peacekeepers were killed on Thursday when attackers stormed a UN base in Jonglei state. There are fears that 36 civilians sheltering in the base were also killed.
The upsurge in hostilities in South Sudan, which gained independence from Sudan in 2011, came despite an offer from the president to open talks with his former deputy, Riek Machar, whom Kiir accuses of having started the fighting last week by attempting a coup.