WASHINGTON - US Secretary of State John Kerry left late Tuesday on his first major tour of Africa focused on some of the continent's most brutal wars including the bloodshed in South Sudan.
The trip, which will take in Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola, will seek to "encourage democratic development, promote respect for human rights, advance peace and security," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki has said.
Kerry, who is due to return to Washington on May 5, will also "engage with civil society and young African leaders, who will shape the continent's future, and promote trade, investment and development partnerships in Africa."
On his first stop in Addis Ababa, Kerry will meet with leaders from the African Union, including from Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda.
Ethiopia has been hosting peace talks between South Sudan's government and rebels aimed at ending a bloody four-month civil war, which has left thousands of people dead and over a million displaced.
The talks resumed again on Monday after long delays but have made little progress.
Kerry is expected to try to press the negotiators to end the fighting amid global outrage over a wave of atrocities in the world's newest nation, which the US helped give birth to.
Last week the UN Security Council brandished the threat of sanctions against South Sudan government forces, loyal to President Salva Kiir, and rebels behind former vice president Riek Machar.
"We will be delivering tough messages to both sides to indicate... that they will be held accountable if they don't take the necessary actions to end the hostilities," a senior State Department official said.
The official confirmed that Washington was still deciding who should be targeted for sanctions.
"We're working on a list. So that process is moving forward."
UN Special Advisor for the Prevention of Genocide Adama Dieng (L) speaking, along UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, with rebel backed former South Sudanese vice president Riek Machar (R) in an undisclosed location in South Sudan on Tuesday. CREDIT/AFP (Source: UNMISS)
Washington would have sought to prevent the conflict which erupted in December if it had been possible, the official said.
"It is clear that Riek Machar and Salva Kiir do not have their countries' best good in their hearts," the diplomat said, asking not to be named.
"I see them fighting a personal battle that has led to the deaths of many people. This is not a battle against -- Nuer against Dinka. It is a Riek Machar-Salva Kiir battle, and they have used ethnic tensions and their own ethnicity to foment what has been a horrific war in this country."
Kerry is expected to arrive in Kinshasa on Saturday to meet President Joseph Kabila for talks on demobilizing rebel groups and pushing democracy ahead of elections planned for next year.
He will be accompanied by US special envoy to the Great Lakes region Russ Feingold, who has taken a leading role in brokering a peace deal with M23 rebels in hostilities which date back to 1994.
The DRC government has gained more control in the conflict-hit eastern areas since a national army offensive, backed by a special UN brigade, forced the powerful M23 rebels to lay down its arms in November.
"It was hard getting all of them to the negotiating table and getting an agreement for M23 to lay down their arms," the official said.
And even though there are no plans to visit Rwanda, the official stressed "we could not have gotten that without the cooperation of the Ugandans and the Rwandans."
Ties have strained with Kigali over the past two years, due to the Rwandan government's alleged support for the M23 rebels in DR Congo.
"We're looking at, with M23, the next steps in amnesty... to hold those accountable and to look at reintegration of others back into the country."
On his final stop in the oil-rich country of Angola, Kerry will meet with long-time leader President Jose Eduardo dos Santos.
"The Angolans have been playing an extraordinarily positive role on a number of regional issues, particularly as they relate to DRC but also most recently in Central African Republic," the State Department official said.
Kerry in Africa amid fears over S. Sudan war