ADDIS ABABA - US Secretary of State John Kerry warned Thursday of a risk of genocide in South Sudan if the country's four-month-old civil war is not stopped.
"There are very disturbing leading indicators of the kind of ethnic, tribal, targeted nationalistic killings taking place that raise serious questions," Kerry told reporters.
"Were they to continue in the way they've been going (they) could really present a very serious challenge to the international community with respect to the questions of genocide," he added.
Fears of both genocide and famine in war-torn South Sudan dominated Kerry's agenda Thursday, one day after arriving in Ethiopia to launch an Africa tour focusing on the continent's most brutal conflicts.
"Those who are responsible for targeted killings based on ethnicity or nationality have to be brought to justice, and we are actively considering sanctions against those who commit human rights violations and obstruct humanitarian assistance," he said.
Outrage is mounting over the scale of killings, with both government forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and rebels backing ex-vice president Riek Machar implicated in massacres, rapes, attacks on UN bases and recruiting child soldiers.
Kerry's comments follow warnings Wednesday by top United Nations rights officials, who vowed they would to do everything in their power to prevent the country from sliding into genocide, and warned of the growing risk of famine.
"We need to try to prevent the widespread famine that could conceivably flow from the violence that is taking place there now," Kerry added.
Thousands of people have already been killed - and possibly tens of thousands - with at least 1.2 million people forced to flee their homes in the country, the world's youngest, which won independence from Sudan only in 2011.
Kerry said he was frustrated at the apparent lack of concern by both Kiir and Machar to stop the war.
"I was frankly disappointed by both individuals' responses," he said, adding that he had spoken many times to both leaders.
His concerns echo that of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, who on Wednesday issued a damning criticism of both Kiir and Machar, saying she was "appalled by the apparent lack of concern about the risk of famine displayed by both leaders."
"The deadly mix of recrimination, hate speech, and revenge killings... seems to be reaching boiling point," Pillay said.