UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The United States warned South Sudan’s president and rebel leader on Tuesday to engage in serious peace talks to end nearly a year of violence in the world’s newest state or face United Nations sanctions.
Fighting erupted in December in South Sudan - which declared independence from Sudan in 2011 - after months of political tension between President Salva Kiir and his sacked deputy and political rival, Riek Machar. Peace talks brokered by African regional bloc IGAD resumed last week.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power warned Kiir and Machar that if a peace deal could not be reached during current talks in Ethiopia then long-threatened sanctions were likely to be imposed by the U.N. Security Council.
“(IGAD) are now sitting down with the parties and making very clear that if this round of talks ... do not succeed then IGAD and the (Security) Council are going to need to move out on these long-threatened sanctions,” she said.
Kiir raised concerns on Saturday at the United Nations about U.N. peacekeepers now focusing on protecting civilians instead of state-building in South Sudan.
“I would urge President Kiir to engage in the talks with heightened seriousness and urgency if he wants to see the U.N. presence on the ground again move through this phase and back to the kind of functions that they performed previously,” Power told reporters.
The U.N. Security Council authorized peacekeepers in May to give priority to the protection of civilians. The council doubled the number of peacekeepers in late December to 12,500 troops when fighting broke out.
Ethnic divisions have also fueled the violence, pitting Kiir’s Dinka people against Machar’s Nuer.
During his speech at the U.N. General Assembly on Saturday, Kiir complained that the United Nations mission to South Sudan was no longer helping with capacity building, security sector reforms and development.
“Unfortunately because the president of South Sudan and opposition leader Riek Machar have not yet shown the spirit of compromise that is needed, we can’t even begin to get to the conversation of when we start reverting to supporting government institutions,” Power said.
She said civilians in South Sudan had been placed in grave peril because of attacks by government troops and rebel forces as well as the denial of humanitarian aid access.
The conflict has killed more than 10,000 people, caused over 1 million to flee and driven the country of 11 million closer to famine. By year-end, a third of the people could face the threat of starvation, the United Nations said.
Kiir also failed to attend a Thursday meeting on the humanitarian crisis organized by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
“This is something I raised with him personally,” Power said. “He said he was informed this was a ministerial meeting and was not aware head of state attendance was required. I leave it to everyone else to draw their own conclusions on that.”
Reporting by Michelle Nichols, editing by G Crosse