WASHINGTON - US Secretary of State John Kerry told South Sudanese President Salva Kiir on Saturday that he welcomed the release of four South Sudan leaders accused of rebellion and treason.
The top US diplomat expressed "grave concern" about the ongoing conflict in the world's youngest nation, where a four-month civil war between Kiir's government and rebels loyal to sacked vice president Riek Machar has left thousands of people dead, over a million displaced and prompted UN warnings of the risk of famine.
During a phone call, Kerry pointed to "recent violence in Bentiu and Bor and the deliberate targeting of civilians by armed groups on both sides of the conflict," spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement.
But he "welcomed the government of South Sudan's decision to release the four senior political officials who had been in detention since December."
On Friday, the four leaders were released and charges of attempting to overthrow the government were dropped, in a move aimed at easing tensions.
Their detention had been a major sticking point in peace talks, and the gesture comes as the leaders on both sides of the conflict face the threat of UN sanctions amid worsening violence and atrocities.
Kerry "urged President Kiir to stop military offensives and to adhere to the Cessation of Hostilities agreement," the statement said, noting Washington has made the same demands of anti-government forces.
"Both Secretary Kerry and President Kiir expressed their support for the... peace process."
The court order said the men were released "in order to promote peace and reconciliation among our people," while Kiir called on people to respect those released.
"This is the only way of getting out" of war, he said in a speech. "Let's all work together."