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In South Sudan, Kerry calls for end to violence

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FILE – This April 29, 2014 file photo shows Secretary of State John Kerry speaking at the State Department in Washington. Stopping short of describing deadly fighting in South Sudan as genocide, Kerry on Thursday blasted the new nation’s ethnic and political leaders as creating the same kind of violence their people sought to escape when they voted three years ago to break away from Sudan. (AP Photo)

FILE – This April 29, 2014 file photo shows Secretary of State John Kerry speaking at the State Department in Washington. Stopping short of describing deadly fighting in South Sudan as genocide, Kerry on Thursday blasted the new nation’s ethnic and political leaders as creating the same kind of violence their people sought to escape when they voted three years ago to break away from Sudan. (AP Photo)

In this photo taken Tuesday, April 29, 2014 and released by the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) on Wednesday, April 30, 2014, South Sudan’s former Vice President and now rebel leader Riek Machar, left, shakes hands with Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide Adama Dieng, right, at an undisclosed location in South Sudan. The U.N.’s top official for human rights Navi Pillay told a news conference in South Sudan’s capital Juba on Wednesday that the country is on the verge of catastrophe because of a deadly mix of recrimination, hate speech and revenge killings since December and that she is appalled by the apparent lack of concern by leaders in South Sudan over the risk of a potential famine. (AP Photo/UNMISS)

In this photo taken Tuesday, April 29, 2014 and released by the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) on Wednesday, April 30, 2014, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, center, visits an undisclosed location in South Sudan. The U.N.’s top official for human rights told a news conference in South Sudan’s capital Juba on Wednesday that the country is on the verge of catastrophe because of a deadly mix of recrimination, hate speech and revenge killings since December and that she is appalled by the apparent lack of concern by leaders in South Sudan over the risk of a potential famine. (AP Photo/UNMISS)

In this photo taken Tuesday, April 29, 2014 and released by the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) on Wednesday, April 30, 2014, South Sudan’s former Vice President and now rebel leader Riek Machar meets with United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay and Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide Adama Dieng at an undisclosed location in South Sudan. The U.N.’s top official for human rights told a news conference in South Sudan’s capital Juba on Wednesday that the country is on the verge of catastrophe because of a deadly mix of recrimination, hate speech and revenge killings since December and that she is appalled by the apparent lack of concern by leaders in South Sudan over the risk of a potential famine. (AP Photo/UNMISS)

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JUBA, South Sudan (AP) — In a stern warning, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is urging South Sudan’s warring government and rebel leaders to uphold a monthslong promise to embrace a cease-fire or risk the specter of genocide through continued ethnic killings.

Kerry, landing in the capital Juba on Friday, carried the threat of U.S. sanctions against prominent South Sudanese leaders if the rampant violence doesn’t stop. But more than anything, he sought to compel authorities on both sides of the fight to put aside personal and tribal animosities for the good of a nation that declared independence three years ago to escape decades of war.

Now, South Sudan is engulfed in widespread killings that have largely broken down along ethnic lines and are drawing comparisons to genocide.

It’s estimated that thousands of people have been killed since the fighting began nearly six months ago, and about 1 million others have fled their homes. If that continues, Kerry said Thursday, it “could really present a very serious challenge to the international community with respect to the question of genocide.”

“It is our hope that that can be avoided,” he said on the eve of his daylong visit to South Sudan. “It is our hope that in these next days, literally, we can move more rapidly to put people on the ground who could begin to make a difference.”

While in Juba, Kerry plans to meet with President Salva Kiir, an ethnic Dinka. U.S. officials said Kerry also hopes to speak by phone with rebel leader and former Vice President Riek Machar, a Nuer.

Violence engulfing South Sudan since last December is largely the result of ethnic tensions between the two tribes that boiled over when Kiir accused Machar of plotting a coup. A month later, both sides agreed to a peace deal that eventually fell apart within days.

The U.S. and U.N. are threatening to bring sanctions against militants on both sides of the fighting — including, potentially, Kiir and Machar themselves. And Western officials are trying to persuade the African Union to deploy thousands of troops to South Sudan to keep the peace — or, as Kerry put it, make peace after massacres and bloody counterattacks show no sign of ceding.

Hope for a cease-fire lies largely in the hands of AU officials who are undecided on what a peacekeeping force would look like, as well as leaders of neighboring Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda who are weighing their own sanctions against South Sudan. Those penalties — likely freezing the assets and travel privileges of South Sudan’s elite — would carry far more weight than sanctions by the U.S. alone, which has relatively limited interaction with the eastern African nation.

U.S. lawmakers want to impose the sanctions anyway. In a letter Thursday to President Barack Obama, nine U.S. senators, including Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Menendez, D-N.J., called for targeted sanctions on militants who are believed to have

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