WASHINGTON - U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told a senior South Sudan official on Thursday that the Juba government needed to end the fighting in the African country, as the State Department brandished the threat of sanctions.
In a meeting with South Sudan's minister of the office of president, Awan Riak, Kerry said: "We will not stand by while the hopes of a nation are held hostage to short-sighted and destructive actors."
In a statement about the meeting, the State Department pointedly noted that President Barack Obama last week authorized possible targeted sanctions against those committing human rights abuses in South Sudan or undermining democracy and obstructing the peace process.
A civil war in South Sudan between the government and rebels has created a humanitarian crisis in the country, which declared independence from Sudan in 2011 but has since been plagued by disorder.
Thousands of people have been killed and more than 1 million people have been displaced since fighting erupted in mid-December, triggered by a power struggle between the government of President Salva Kiir and rebels led by former Vice President Riek Machar. The conflict has also disrupted oil output, which provides a hefty portion of the government's revenue.
The failure of peace talks so far has frustrated Western backers of the world's youngest country, who are pressing both sides to lay down their weapons.
Relief agencies have expressed concern about access to aid because of the warring parties' suspicions of U.N. relief efforts.
The State Department said Kerry noted "his grave concern" about the situation and urged the government "immediately to stop the fighting, provide full humanitarian access, and cease harassment and threats against the U.N. mission."
Kerry called on the country's leaders "to prioritize the interests of the South Sudanese people over their own personal or ethnic interests."