Addis Ababa: US Secretary of State John Kerry warned on Thursday of the risk of genocide and famine in South Sudan, brandishing the threat of sanctions against leaders of the country's warring factions.
Outrage is mounting over the scale of killings in South Sudan, with both government forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and rebels backing ex-vice-president Riek Machar implicated in massacres, rapes, attacks on UN bases and recruiting child soldiers.
"There are very disturbing leading indicators of the kind of ethnic, tribal, targeted nationalistic killings taking place that raise serious questions," Kerry told reporters in the Ethiopian capital.
"Were they to continue in the way they've been going (they) could really present a very serious challenge to the international community with respect to the questions of genocide," he added.
Fears of both genocide and famine in war-torn South Sudan dominated Kerry's agenda on Thursday, one day after arriving in Ethiopia to launch a six-day Africa tour focusing on the continent's most brutal conflicts.
"Those who are responsible for targeted killings based on ethnicity or nationality have to be brought to justice, and we are actively considering sanctions against those who commit human rights violations and obstruct humanitarian assistance," he said.
President Barack Obama signed a decree last month authorising punitive sanctions, including the seizure of assets and visa bans, against anyone in South Sudan deemed to be threatening peace efforts.
The US was instrumental in helping South Sudan gain independence from Khartoum in 2011, and Kerry's visit to the region has been taken as a sign of growing unease in Washington over how the country has collapsed in such a short period time.
Thousands of people have already been killed — and possibly tens of thousands — with at least 1.2 million people forced to flee their homes in the world's newest country.
Kerry's comments followed warnings on Wednesday by top United Nations rights officials, who vowed they would to do everything in their power to prevent the country from sliding into genocide, and warned of the growing risk of famine.
"We need to try to prevent the widespread famine that could conceivably flow from the violence that is taking place there now," Kerry said, adding he was frustrated at the apparent lack of concern by both Kiir and Machar to stop the war.
"I was frankly disappointed by both individuals' responses," he said, adding that he had spoken many times to both leaders.
The war has taken on a bitter ethnic dimension, pitching Kiir's Dinka community against the Nuer of Machar, but the US diplomats travelling with Kerry said the heart of the conflict was rather a personal
"Riek Machar-Salva Kiir battle".
On Wednesday the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, issued a similarly damning criticism of Kiir and Machar, saying she was "appalled by the apparent lack of concern about the risk of famine displayed by both leaders."
"The deadly mix of recrimination, hate speech, and revenge killings... seems to be reaching boiling point," Pillay said.
The UN this week made a desperate appeal for a one - month truce to avert a famine and humanitarian disaster, with seven million facing hunger.
South Sudan's government insists it wants peace, and Information Minister Michael Makuei said that while "bloodshed is an undeniable part of our past", Juba would work with Kerry to "help bring this conflict to a close".
South Sudan peace talks resumed again on Monday in Ethiopia after long delays, but have made little progress. A ceasefire signed in January is in tatters, with tens of thousands of people sheltering in UN bases following a wave of ethnic massacres and other war crimes.
The crisis topped the agenda as Kerry held talks on Thursday with counterparts from Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda. They discussed possible contributions to a peacekeeping force.
Addis Ababa is the headquarters of the African Union, and Kerry is expected to also discuss conflicts in Central African Republic (CAR), Somalia and Democratic Republic of Congo.
Kerry is also due to visit DR Congo and Angola.