A spokesman for Uganda's Foreign Ministry has denied reports that the government in Kampala sent troops from the Uganda People's Defense Force (UPDF) to support South Sudan's President Salva Kiir in the ongoing conflict in Africa's newest nation.
Fred Opolot said the UPDF troops would this week attempt to rescue about 2,000 Ugandan citizens trapped in South Sudan. The conflict there between supporters of President Kiir and former Vice president Riek Marcher has reportedly left more than 500 people killed, and has forced tens of thousands of people to flee from their homes.
"Our major concern is to ensure that [our citizens] are safe, and if not they are evacuated so that process is ongoing," said Opolot. "Uganda People's Defense Forces [are] in Juba to secure the airport, in order to ensure that the evacuation process goes very smoothly."
The violence in South Sudan erupted after President Salva Kiir, a Dinka, accused former vice president Riek Machar, a Nuer, of attempting a coup. Marcher, who is in hiding, denied the accusation.
Opolot rejected suspicions that President Yoweri Museveni supported South Sudan's leader in the conflict.
"Those suspicions are completely unfounded," said Opolot. "We have a lot of Ugandans in South Sudan and their security is of the most importance for us right now, it is our focus. So in as far as the UPDF is in South Sudan to prop up Salva Kiir that is not true, and they are unfounded."
Last week President Barack Obama sent 45 U.S. service personnel to the region on a mission he said is aimed at protecting U.S. personnel and the U.S. Embassy. In a White House statement issued during the weekend, President Obama stressed the importance of the U.S. evacuation mission and said South Sudan's leaders had a responsibility to assist U.S. efforts.
Opolot said the government in Kampala was ensuring citizens trapped due to the conflict in neighboring South Sudan are safe and would evacuate those directly affected by the conflict.
He expressed concern about the safety of Ugandan citizens trapped in Jonglei state at the United Nations base where there have been reports of fierce fighting. Opolot said Uganda troops would this week attempt to evacuate citizens from the U.N. base.
"UPDF will attempt to make sure that they are rescued. But obviously they have been facing some fire from the fighters there," said the spokesman.
He said Uganda wanted to be part of the solution to help resolve the conflict in South Sudan.
"At the onset of these troubles, President Museveni did try to engage Salva Kiir," said Opolot.
He said Uganda's minister for international relations was part of the African Union led delegation that held a series of meetings with both warring parties as part of an effort to resolve the conflict.