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Nairobi, Kenya - The U.S. State Department on Friday said it is evacuating additional American Embassy personnel from South Sudan and urged all U.S. citizens to leave the country as well, even as opposing factions began talks in neighboring Ethiopia aimed at stopping a budding civil war.
In a travel advisory posted on its website, the State Department said it had ordered a further reduction of U.S. Embassy personnel from South Sudan's capital, Juba, "because of the deteriorating security situation" in the world's newest country, which has been torn apart by fighting between rival military groups since mid-December.
The U.S. military evacuated about 20 U.S. citizens Friday as part of the embassy drawdown in Juba, said Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman. The American personnel departed South Sudan on a KC-130 aircraft that arrived in Juba from Entebbe, Uganda. The embassy staff was taken back to Entebbe.
About 45 U.S. troops are still in Juba to protect the embassy; Obama sent them there last month.
The embassy will stop providing consular services for any remaining American citizens today, the State Department advisory said.
The United States will provide an evacuation flight "to the nearest safe haven country" on Friday, the notice said. It told U.S. citizens who want a seat on that flight to pack no more than one piece of luggage and to take $50 in cash to pay for a Ugandan visa, indicating that Uganda will be either the first stop or the final destination in the government-arranged journey.
"Evacuation assistance will be provided on a first-come, first-served basis to eligible U.S. citizens," the advisory read. "U.S. citizens who are not able to take advantage of the evacuation flight should review their security situation and strongly consider taking advantage of any existing commercial flights."
The drawdown of embassy personnel suggests that U.S. diplomats are deeply concerned about the prospects for a cease-fire and a peace deal between loyalists of President Salva Kiir and backers of former vice president Riek Machar.
Fighting between the two sides has triggered spasms of ethnic bloodletting. Hundreds of people, if not several thousand, have been killed, and nearly 200,000 have been displaced, according to United Nations officials.
The rebels this week retook the strategically located town of Bor and have moved about 13 miles south toward Juba, 120 miles away.
Peace talks between representatives of Kiir and Machar began Friday morning in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, according to the Ethiopian Foreign Ministry.
The United States has evacuated more than 400 American citizens from Juba and other parts of the country since the clashes spread to more than 20 towns last month.
To protect the embassy, Washington dispatched a contingent of 45 American troops.
It was unclear how many additional embassy staffers would be evacuated Friday or whether they would include senior diplomats and personnel.
U.S. Ambassador to South Sudan Susan Page indicated that the embassy would remain open.
"We are not suspending our operations," Page told Reuters news agency. "We are just minimizing our presence."
In Washington, Deputy State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said later that Page has not been evacuated from Juba and that she "remains in constant communication with South Sudanese officials," the U.N. mission and her foreign counterparts.
"Even as we draw down our personnel, the United States remains committed to supporting the regional and international efforts to end the violence in South Sudan," Harf said in a statement.
The United States, she added, will provide an additional $49.8 million in humanitarian assistance to help victims of the conflict.
The new aid brings total U.S. humanitarian assistance to South Sudan to more than $300 million for fiscal 2013 and 2014, the State Department said Friday.
"The people of South Sudan deserve a better future-a future that gives them the chance to realize the hopes and dreams they celebrated at independence, not one characterized by the violence, unrest and instability we see today," Harf said.