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Peace talks set for South Sudan - or will new nation face global sanctions?

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May 2, 2014: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks with members of the U.S. military working with the United Nations at the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) base in Juba.

South Sudan was supposed to be a crowning foreign policy achievement for the United States – something that would last at a time when the Arab Spring revolutions in Libya and Egypt haven’t been living up to their expectations.

After all, the country’s very existence was brought about through years of developmental aid approved by various U.S. administrations.

The oil-rich country was even promoted to global investors as the new hot-spot for opportunity. But in the years since its split from Sudan, the country has fallen into despair. 

Brought on by all-too familiar petty power struggles, South Sudan is struggling – and the United States is finding itself in the all-too familiar place of trying to create peace in an unstable region.

On Friday, Secretary of State John Kerry urged South Sudan's warring government and rebel leaders to uphold a months-long promise to embrace a cease-fire or risk the specter of genocide through continued ethnic killings.

South Sudan's president tentatively agreed Friday to revitalize peace talks that have been stalled for months, taking what the U.S. described as a necessary step toward creating a new government and halting rampant bloodshed in the world's newest nation. But it was not immediately clear whether President Salva Kiir's main rival would participate in the talks, despite being urged by Kerry.

Following a 90-minute meeting in Kiir's lush office compound, Kerry announced the negotiations could begin as early as next week. He said Kiir "committed very clearly" to begin discussions, mediated by Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, for a cease-fire and a transitional government.

Kerry, landing in the capital city of 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.

Samantha Power, America’s Ambassador to the U.S., urged the council Friday to to consider imposing targeted sanctions in parallel with such action by the United States in a bid to stop the "outrageous attacks" on civilians and the U.N. peacekeeping mission in South Sudan, which is known as UNMISS.

"In the coming days my government will join in circulating a resolution that will revise the mandate of UNMISS to focus more fully on civilian protection, human rights monitoring and investigation and the delivery of food and other emergency supplies," Power said.

"This council should take up that resolution with the urgency that this crisis demands," she said.

Last month, President Obama authorized possible targeted sanctions against those committing human rights abuses in South Sudan or undermining democracy and obstructing the peace process.

The future of South Sudan is hazy, some say. The widespread killings, which have largely broken down along ethnic lines, are drawing more and more 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.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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