U.N. ramps up threat to sanction South Sudan's senior leaders

By Michelle Nichols

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The United Nations Security Council on Tuesday threatened sanctions against "senior individuals" in South Sudan for actions or policies that jeopardise security and stability after the war-torn country's leaders failed to agree on a peace deal.

South Sudan plunged into civil war in December 2013 when a political crisis sparked fighting between forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and rebels allied with his former deputy Riek Machar. The conflict has reopened ethnic fault lines that pit Kiir's Dinka people against Machar's ethnic Nuer forces.

At least 10,000 people have been killed and 1.5 million displaced. Both sides agreed in principle to share power but have failed to agree on how to implement that. The latest round of talks in Ethiopia broke down more than two weeks ago.

"The Security Council reiterates its intent to impose any sanctions that may be appropriate to respond to the situation, which may include an arms embargo and the designation of senior individuals responsible for actions or policies that threaten the peace, security or stability of South Sudan," it said.

In a statement, the 15-member council said the aim was to encourage the government and opposition to form a transitional government and "take effective and comprehensive steps to cause forces under direct or indirect control to cease military operations, acts of violence, as well as violations of human rights, and enable full access for humanitarian assistance."

The Security Council has been considering sanctions for almost a year. Earlier this month it established a sanctions regime for South Sudan but stopped short of imposing travel bans and asset freezes on officials or creating an arms embargo.

The United States and European Union have already imposed sanctions on commanders on both sides.

The United States supported Kiir until it lost confidence in 2013. Washington hoped he could oversee a stable, oil-producing, majority Christian state allied to the West in contrast to neighbouring Muslim-led Sudan, which is hostile to Washington.

Kiir last week dismissed the threat of U.N. sanctions and said the government was ready to continue fighting rebels if they preferred war.

"Sanctions at this critical juncture of history ... will only devastate the economy, and increase economic pressures on people who are already suffering and are desperate," South Sudan's U.N. Ambassador Francis Deng told the council.

Deng said it was ironic that the United States, which helped South Sudan gain independence in 2011, was now "leading a kind of hostility toward" the country.

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Richard Chang)