Stopping short of describing deadly fighting in South Sudan as genocide, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Thursday blasted the new nation's ethnic and political leaders as creating the same kind of violence their people sought to escape when they voted three years ago to break away from Sudan.
Kerry came to Africa in large part to broker an agreement among the African Union — and eastern Africa states in particular — to send peacekeepers to South Sudan as quickly as possible to stanch the brutal killings that have largely broken down along ethnic lines and threaten to throw the country into outright civil war. It's estimated that thousands of people have been killed since the fighting began nearly six months ago, and about 1 million others have fled their homes.
But it remains unclear, despite Kerry's lobbying, whether the A.U. would send enough troops to South Sudan to help United Nations forces quell the violence.
He blamed the brutalities on a vicious rivalry between President Salva Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, and former Vice President-turned-rebel Riek Machar, a Nuer. The two ethnic tribes have feuded for generations.
If the fighting continues to target civilians along ethnic and tribal lines, Kerry said at a news conference in Ethiopia, they "could really present a very serious challenge to the international community with respect to the question of genocide."
"It is our hope that that could be avoided," Kerry said, adding that he also hoped that "in these next days, literally, we can move more rapidly to put people on the ground who can make a difference."
The U.N. has stationed nearly 14,000 peacekeeping troops and police officials in South Sudan in recent months. U.S. officials believe the A.U. is willing to deploy at least 5,000 more troops to South Sudan, but that may not be enough to establish calm in the nation of 11 million people.
Uganda already has troops inside South Sudan in support of the Kiir government in Juba, but that has raised regional concerns since both sides of the conflict are accused of killing civilians. The U.S. has said it wants Uganda to withdraw from South Sudan.
After meeting with Kerry, Ethiopian Foreign Minister Tedros Adhanom said he joined diplomats from Kenya and Uganda in agreeing that a fast solution is necessary. "There is an agreement that we have to be as aggressive as possible in order to have an impact on the ground in South Sudan," Adhanom told reporters. But he did not offer details and neither did Kerry.
Earlier this week, U.N. envoy Adama Dieng warned that South Sudan could descend into genocide if the violence continued. And U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navy Pillay said the nation faces another major threat — famine — as a result of farmers who have had to abandon their homes and crops to escape the fighting.
Last week, UNICEF warned that up to 50,000 children under the age of five could die of malnutrition this year as a result of the South Sudan crisis. The World Food Program said it is facing a $224 million funding deficit for an emergency request to feed 1.1 million people.
After meeting with both Kiir and Machar, Pillay on Wednesday blasted South Sudan’s warring leaders. "The prospect of widespread hunger and malnutrition being inflicted on hundreds of thousands of their people, because of their personal failure to resolve their differences peacefully, did not appear to concern them very much," she said.
Kerry on Thursday threatened anew to impose financial and travel sanctions against officials who are believed to be involved in the killing. U.S. officials have not ruled out the possibility of sanctioning Kiir and Machar themselves, and Kerry said Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda also are willing to impose penalties on perpetrators.
After a decades-long fight for independence, South Sudan peacefully broke away from Sudan in 2011. But fighting broke out last December when Kiir accused Machar of trying to stage a coup and wrest control of the government. The U.S. has not embraced that view, although Kerry on Thursday drew a clear distinction between Kiir, the constitutionally elected president of South Sudan, and Machar, whom he accused of trying to "take power with force."
But he said both leaders needed to do more to end the conflict.
"Acts of violence against civilians on both sides in South Sudan are a reminder of the unbelievable capacity for cruelty on this planet," Kerry said. "This is precisely the kind of violence that the people of South Sudan fought so hard for so long to try to escape."
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press