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US Begins Evacuating Citizens from South Sudan as Unrest Spreads

The United States began evacuating Americans from South Sudan Wednesday as fighting that has rattled Juba for three days spread to neighboring states.

Three groups of U.S. citizens were "safely and successfully evacuated" from South Sudan on board two U.S. military aircraft and a private charter flight, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said.

Among those airlifted out of South Sudan were non-emergency staff from the embassy, Ajani Husbands, the public affairs officer at the U.S. embassy in Juba, told VOA News.

The British embassy has also evacuated personnel from South Sudan.

The evacuations come three days after gunbattles broke out in Juba in what President Salva Kiir has said was an attempted coup led by former Vice President Riek Machar.

UNMISS said more than 20,000 civilians have sought shelter at two U.N. compounds and the World Food Programme's compound in Juba.

U.N. officials said they are investigating reports that several hundred people have been killed or injured in the fighting, while the Red Cross has reported that more than 300 patients have been treated at two hospitals in Juba.

That marked a sharp uptick from the toll reported Tuesday, when Health Undersecretary, Dr. Makur Matur Kariom, said that medical staff at Juba Teaching Hospital have recorded 26 deaths caused by the violence in the capital.

While Juba was relatively calm Wednesday, officials in Jonglei state said the fighting has spread there.

Jonglei Deputy Governor Hussein Maar said clashes erupted overnight at two military barracks around 10 kilometers outside Bor, the state capital of Jonglei, triggering panic and sending hundreds of people fleeing to United Nations' facilities for protection.

"Because of that fighting, the local people here got scared that it will spill over to the town and people are running about in town," he said.

Six people were killed just outside Bor, but it was unclear if those deaths were related to the fighting, Maar said.

The U.N. Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) said the fighting near Bor was heavy and lasted for four hours.

"The violence triggered an exodus of civilians out of Bor, and thousands have sought shelter at the Mission’s compound on the southeastern outskirts of the city," UNMISS said in a statement.

Kiir Open to Talks to End Violence

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told a news conference that he has spoken to Kiir and "impressed on him the need to resume dialogue with the political opposition."

"I welcome the reports this morning that President Salva Kiir is willing to enter into such talks," the U.N. Secretary General said.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in a speech given in the Philippines, where he is visiting the typhoon-ravaged city of Tacloban, that the people of South Sudan deserve better than a backwards step into violence.

"They have endured many years of conflict and sacrifice, far too much for their country to now go backwards and descend back into violence," Kerry said.

"Political differences need to be resolved by peaceful and democratic means, and those have been hard fought for. The government should respect the rule of law, and the people of South Sudan should be able to realize their full potential in peace," he said.

The U.S. State Department said Ambassador Susan Page "raised the arrests of several opposition members" when she met with Kiir on Wednesday.

Ten people have been arrested in connection with the violence, and five more, including Machar, are still at large, according to the South Sudan government's website.

Machar's whereabouts are still unknown, but he is reported to be in South Sudan.

Kiir fired Machar in July as part of a complete overhaul of his cabinet. Since then, Machar has been an outspoken critic of the president, accusing Kiir of having dictatorial tendencies.

But the former vice president has denied having anything to do with the unrest or with organizing an alleged coup.

Juba is still under a dusk to dawn curfew, with no indication as to when it will be lifted.

Most major land border crossings remained closed Wednesday, but the government ordered that the airport in Juba be reopened to commercial flights.

The U.S. embassy confirmed in a tweet that the airport had reopened but warned that there were "reports of multiple checkpoints" on the road leading to the airport.