ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — 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 remained unclear, despite Kerry's lobbying, whether the AU 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.
"Leadership is needed," Kerry told reporters at a news conference Thursday in the Ethiopian capital.
If the fighting continues to target civilians along ethnic and tribal lines, Kerry said, 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.
He said 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."
U.S. officials believe the AU is willing to deploy at least 5,000 troops to South Sudan. But that may not be enough to help create calm in the nation of 11 million people.
By comparison, the U.N. has stationed nearly 14,000 peacekeeping troops and police officials in South Sudan in recent months.
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 brutality continues. 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.
UNICEF is warning that up to 50,000 children could die of malnutrition this year.
After a decades-long fight for independence, South Sudan peacefully broke away from Sudan in 2011. Relations between the two countries have been strained since the split and both countries have suffered from instability and sporadic violence.
Kerry demanded that Kiir and Machar hold accountable those who have directed or organized the killings, and threatened anew to impose financial and travel sanctions against officials who are believed to be involved. 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.
The fighting began in 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, as 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."
While in Ethiopia, Kerry also urged authorities to protect journalists following the arrest and detention of at least nine journalists and bloggers. He said their work "makes societies stronger and vibrant."
Rights groups had urged Kerry to speak out in support of the Ethiopian journalists who were jailed just days ahead of Kerry's visit. They are accused of inciting public violence and collaborating with foreign activist groups.
Leslie Lefkow of Human Rights Watch, which has urged the journalists' unconditional release, said the arrests signaled that "anyone who criticizes the Ethiopian government will be silenced."
Associated Press Writer Elias Meseret in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, contributed to this report.