ENTEBBE, Uganda — South Sudan's civil war is now genocide, with violence perpetrated along tribal lines, a senior British official said, urging African leaders to do more to end the conflict in which tens of thousands of people have been killed.
Priti Patel, the U.K. secretary of state for international development, said there are "massacres taking place, people's throats being slit" amid what she called a "scorched earth policy" in South Sudan's three-year war.
"It's tribal, it's absolutely tribal, so on that basis it's genocide," she said of the violence, speaking to The Associated Press on Wednesday night.
Her comments are the rare declaration by any government official of genocide in South Sudan.
Patel spoke after visiting South Sudan, where she met President Salva Kiir, whose government repeatedly has been accused of blocking food aid to some areas and harassing aid workers.
The situation in South Sudan is "absolutely abhorrent and inhumane," Patel said. The country also faces a hunger crisis, with famine recently declared in two counties and threatening to spread.
Villages are being burned, women are being raped and food is being used as a weapon of war, Patel said in neighbouring Uganda, where she visited some of the refugee settlements in which over 800,000 South Sudanese are sheltering. Thousands of refugees continue to flee across the border amid increasing reports of targeted ethnic killings perpetrated by mostly government forces.
"The violence that is taking place is a stain on Africa," Patel said.
She called on Africa's leaders to press for an end to the war.
"Other leaders in the region cannot sit on their hands here," she said. "They themselves have to call on President Kiir to do more. If there's a national dialogue plan, regional leaders in my view should be taking the lead on that, in terms of how they influence President Kiir but also how they support the national dialogue as well to bring peace and reconciliation to that country."
A United Nations report released last month said South Sudan is experiencing ethnic cleansing by mostly government forces and their allies. The report described the country as teetering on the edge of genocide. South Sudanese government officials repeatedly have denied that the country is experiencing genocide and ethnic cleansing.
"This is about international pressure," Patel said. "Where is the voice of the African Union? This is an African Union that was created to give strength to Africa. Where is that voice? Why are they not standing up for the people that are being massacred over the border who are their fellow African brothers and sisters?"
If Patel's comments on genocide reflect official British policy, one analyst said the country is obligated to act to prevent the abuses.
"Because genocide is the 'crime of crimes,' the Genocide Convention obligates its members to 'prevent or punish' genocide," said Casie Copeland, a senior analyst for the International Crisis Group. "The UK is a treaty signatory, and a declaration of genocide by the UK invokes its obligations."
The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was one of the earliest treaties adopted by the United Nations General Assembly, entering into force in 1951.
After questions from reporters, a British government spokeswoman said Thursday night that "the U.N. has alerted the international community to the risk of genocide and this is something we are monitoring closely."
South Sudan fell into civil war in December 2013, just two years after it won independence from Sudan. When war broke out, Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, accused his political rival, former Vice-President Riek Machar, an ethnic Nuer, of leading an attempted military coup in the capital, Juba, that later escalated into a full-blown rebellion.
A peace deal signed in August 2015 amid international pressure has been violated repeatedly by both sides, and Machar, who had been reinstated as Kiir's deputy under that deal, fled into exile after fighting resumed in Juba in July.
A joint statement Thursday by Britain, the United States, Canada and Norway, issued ahead of the Easter holiday, said that "peace is painfully absent during this holy season" in South Sudan. It pointed out that Kiir has not yet announced the unilateral cease-fire as he said he had agreed to do last month.
More than 1.5 million people have fled the East African nation, creating the world's largest refugee crisis.
The United States and others have been urging accountability. Last month the U.N. commission of inquiry for South Sudan was given broader powers to pursue human rights abuses like mass rape and torture, with the new ability to collect and preserve evidence and point the finger at suspected perpetrators.
Associated Press writer Justin Lynch in Kampala, Uganda, and Greg Katz in London contributed.
Rodney Muhumuza, The Associated Press