Though the United States and other countries are hoping to broker a peaceful solution before a full-blown civil war breaks out in South Sudan, the announcement Tuesday by a top United Nations human rights official that mass graves had been discovered in Juba, the capital city, threatened to derail progress.
South Sudan, which officially became an independent country in 2011, is extremely poor and there's a long history of ethnic violence in the region. Over the past week, hundreds have been killed and tens of thousands of refugees have evacuated as the two top political rivals, South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and former Vice President Riek Machar have jockeyed ahead of the 2015 elections.
Four Navy Seals were injured Saturday when their helicopters took fire during an attempt to evacuate Americans from the city of Bor, President Barack Obama said in a letter to Congress informing lawmakers of the military efforts.
Additional evacuation efforts were launched by the Pentagon Monday, according to The New York Times, with about 150 Marines and six aircraft launching from Spain to Djibouti.
Secretary of State John Kerry also dispatched Donald Booth, special envoy to Sudan and South Sudan, to the region to help facilitate peaceful negotiations.
"I visited Juba today, where I had a frank and open discussion with President Salva Kiir; the discussion focused on a range of measures to halt the devastating violence in South Sudan," Booth said in a press call late Monday. "Importantly, President Kiir committed to me that he was ready to begin talks with Riek Machar to end the crisis, without preconditions, as soon as his counterpart was willing."
But officials expressed concern over the revelations about mass ethnic killings Tuesday and how that could tip the region into deeper chaos.
"Mass extrajudicial killings, the targeting of individuals on the basis of their ethnicity and arbitrary detentions have been documented in recent days," said U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay in a release. "We have discovered a mass grave in Bentiu, in Unity State, and there are reportedly at least two other mass graves in Juba."
Pillay said there is a "palpable fear among civilians" of Dinka and Nuer backgrounds, and that several hundred people had been subject to in-house searches and arrest.
The U.S. initiated U.N. action to help beef up peacekeeping forces in the region as well.
"The leaders of South Sudan face a stark choice," said Samantha Power, the American ambassador to the United Nations, according to the Times. "They can return to the political dialogue and spirit of cooperation that helped establish South Sudan, or they can destroy those hard-fought gains and tear apart their newborn nation."