UNITED NATIONS, May 3- The United States Friday pressed South Sudan’s warring leaders to set a date for face-to-face talks, urging the UN Security Council to consider sanctions to stop attacks on civilians.
Secretary of State John Kerry said during a visit to South Sudan that President Salva Kiir and rebel commander Riek Machar were both committed to holding direct talks.
The meeting, which would be the first face to face talks since the conflict erupted four months ago, is to be held in Ethiopia.
“Salva Kiir has said he will meet directly with former vice president Machar,” US ambassador Samantha Power told the UN Security Council.
“We heard many promises from South Sudanese leaders before without follow-up… We hope for the sake of the people of South Sudan that this time it is different,” she added.
“We urge President Kiir and former vice president Machar to swiftly agree on a date for face-to-face talks.”
The United States, a key backer of South Sudan’s independence from Khartoum, is under pressure to intervene, having poured in billions of dollars in aid to the country since 2011.
Members of the international community have drawn parallels between the situation in South Sudan and the build-up to events that led to genocide in Rwanda 20 years ago.
Last month President Barack Obama authorized punitive sanctions, including the seizure of assets and visa bans, against anyone in South Sudan deemed to be threatening peace efforts.
Power said the United Nations should also consider “urgently whether to put in place parallel targeted sanctions so as to try to deter outrageous attacks on civilians.”
She said the United States would work towards revising the mandate of the UN mission in South Sudan to put greater emphasis on the protection of civilians, rights and the delivery of aid.
“The culture of impunity must end,” said Power.
Diplomats say discussions are underway between the permanent members of the Security Council on two resolutions, putting in place a sanctions regime and revising the UNMISS mandate.
French ambassador Gerard Araud said France would also support a rapid revision of the peacekeeping mission’s mandate as well as sanctions against those opposing a political process.
The conflict started on December 15 with Kiir accusing Machar of attempting a coup. Machar launched a rebellion, insisting that Kiir had attempted to carry out a bloody purge of his rivals.
The war has seen the world’s youngest nation collapse into a cycle of war crimes by both sides, including ethnic massacres, rape and child soldier recruitment.
Last month hundreds of people were massacred by rebels in the northern oil-hub of Bentiu, including in churches, mosques and hospitals, while a pro-government mob shot dead dozens of unarmed civilians sheltering in a UN base in the town of Bor.
Despite heavy international criticism of South Sudanese leaders over the violence, its ambassador to the United Nations Francis Deng asked outright for more cash.
“The current crisis is weakening and, indeed diminishing the limited capacity of the state even more,” he said.
South Sudan “needs support for capacity building now even more than it did before. Withdrawing that support… can only compound the crisis,” he added.
The violence has left thousands dead — and possibly tens of thousands — with at least 1.2 million people forced to flee their homes, many living in appalling conditions on UN bases.
Aid agencies also warn that South Sudan is on the brink of Africa’s worst famine since the 1980s, with the United Nations demanding at least a truce so that crops can be planted.