Ugandan army crosses into South Sudan to evacuate citizens

Ugandan forces cross a bridge in Elegu, Uganda just south of the border with South Sudan. PHOTO: Al Jazeera

A heavily-armed Ugandan military convoy has crossed into South Sudan to evacuate citizens trapped by recent fighting in the capital, Juba, according to officials.

The operation comes a day after the United Nations warned of the possibility of fresh fighting in Juba, despite a two-day ceasefire that followed a major outbreak of violence, in which almost 300 people were killed.

The Ugandan army convoy of around 50 lorries escorted by machinegun-mounted armoured vehicles crossed the border on Thursday at Nimule, some 200km from Juba, to open up a secure corridor for fleeing civilians.

Al Jazeera has learned that the Ugandan forces have already reached the town of Nasitu, 20 kilometres south of Juba as of 1200 GMT.

Al Jazeera has also learned that the entry of Ugandan forces into South Sudanese territory has been authorised by the government of President Salva Kiir.

“We plan to go to Juba to extract 3,000 Ugandans stranded by fighting, but that number may grow as we will evacuate anyone who wants to leave of any nationality,” said army chief Brigadier Leopold Kyanda to the AFP news agency.

“There may even be some South Sudanese who want to leave.”

“Juba is totally peaceful and calm now and we do not expect any problems. The problems could be on the road where there are some few thugs. The first responsibility of any UPDF soldier is to protect himself and we are confident in this,” Kyanda said.

Kyanda said that the mission would probably last “two to three days”.

Al Jazeera reported from Uganda’s capital, Kampala, that Ugandan military as saying there are about 3,000 Ugandan civilans in Juba, so many of those empty lorries deployed were to “bring back their civilians home”.

“Meanwhile, South Sudanese refugees who have been crossing from South Sudan into northern Uganda have complained that South Sudanese soldiers have been beating them, looting their property and some of them have been blocked from crossing,” Webb added.

“These are the kind of risks civilians have been saying that they are facing, so this is the reason that the Ugandan army are deployed to bring back its civilians home.”

The Ugandan army joined the conflict in South Sudan soon after it began in December 2013, fighting on the side of President Kiir against a rebel force led by Riek Machar, now the country’s first vice president.

The Ugandan presence helped prevent the capital from falling into rebel hands while its attack helicopters were deployed to bomb rebel soldiers out of regional towns. Ugandan troops only pulled-out late last year.