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US Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in the South Sudanese capital of Juba on Friday, the White House has reported.
In Addis Ababa on Thursday, Kerry told African leaders: “With respect to the question of genocide, there are very disturbing leading indicators of the kind of ethnic, tribal, targeted nationalistic killings taking place that raise serious questions.”
Last week, the UN condemned two tit-for-tat attacks which appeared to target members of particular ethnic groups and left hundreds dead.
UN spokesperson Joseph Contreras told the media that members of the Nuer tribe, which largely runs the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, overran Bentiu, the capital of Unity State in mid-April and then proceeded to a mosque and hospital, where they robbed and killed people seeking sanctuary.
A day after the attacks in Bentiu, armed militia believed to be members of the Dinka attacked and killed refugees at a UN camp in Bor, the capital of Jonglei.
On Thursday, Kerry told reporters that if such a cycles of revenge killings “continue in the way that they have been going, [they] could really present a very serious challenge to the international community with respect to the question of genocide.”
The Nuer fighters are allied with former Vice-President Riek Machar, who was accused by President Salva Kiir – a member of the Dinka tribe – of orchestrating a coup.
Hostilities erupted when other supporters of the two men, from rival tribes, clashed in the capital Juba, which has since been stabilised by the South Sudan Army loyal to Kiir.
By February, fighting had spread to over 30 towns throughout South Sudan.
Reports emerged that Nuer commanders told their troops to rape non-Nuer women (likely Dinka) during the Bentiu killings and that a radio station was used to encourage fighters to target people based on their ethnicity.
“It’s the first time we’re aware of that a local radio station was broadcasting hate messages encouraging people to engage in atrocities,” said the top UN representative in South Sudan Toby Lanzer after visiting Bentiu.
“And that really accelerates South Sudan’s descent into an even more difficult situation from which it needs to extract itself,” Lanzer told the Associated Press.
He added that the ethnic killings are “game-changers” in the four-month South Sudan civil war.