The U.N. adviser on genocide said Friday that South Sudan, embroiled in civil war since 2013, was at a "strong risk of violence escalating along ethnic lines, with the potential for genocide."
Adama Dieng spoke to reporters in South Sudan's capital, Juba, at the end of his five-day visit to the nation.
Information Minister Michael Makuei disagreed with Dieng and said the U.N. adviser's assessment was "very unfortunate."
"Here in South Sudan, what is happening has nothing to do with genocide," Makuei said.
South Sudan was formed in 2011 and has been beset by internal violence for most of the time since. The civil war has claimed tens of thousands of lives and forced more than a million people to flee to neighboring countries.
An attempt at uniting the two main warring factions in a transitional government collapsed earlier this year, after First Vice President Riek Machar, a former rebel leader who had accepted the second-ranking job in the government, abandoned Juba. Soldiers loyal to him soon resumed fighting against the forces of President Salva Kiir's government.
A peace deal signed in August did little to reduce the fighting, and tribal and political tensions flared anew after a controversial speech by Kiir last month, seen as a broad threat of reprisals against any opposition to his government.
"As a lesson from the genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda," Dieng told an interviewer, "we can only express concern with what has been developing recently in South Sudan, which led to many people ... seek[ing] refuge," either in neighboring Uganda or in calmer provinces of South Sudan.
Dieng said he "delivered the message to [the Kiir government] that the situation is not hopeless."
'No one in control'
In an interview with the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, Dieng said, "There is still room to fend off further escalation of this ethnically fueled tension. But there is conflict almost all over the country. And the lid is off the kettle, and the security apparatus is so fragmented that no one has permanent control anymore."
"What is important now," the U.N. official said, "is that President Salva Kiir, who is in charge of law and order, takes the measures which are required to bring to a halt the escalation of the ongoing ethnically fueled violence."
Separately, the European Union said it would give South Sudan $84.8 million in emergency aid to help those affected by the civil war. About half of that money will go to humanitarian groups, while the rest will assist refugees in South Sudan and in Uganda.
Asked to explain his warning about escalation of the ethnic violence between Kiir's Dinka people and Machar's Nuers, Dieng noted that "genocide is a process [that] doesn't happen overnight. It requires resources, time and planning."
The U.N. adviser said there are a number of factors that differentiate war crimes and crimes against humanity from genocide, which is marked by "an intention to destroy in whole or in part a protected group." Comparing the situation in South Sudan today to the bloodshed in Rwanda a generation ago, Dieng said "inflammatory speech is one of the indicators, and it is increasing today in South Sudan."
In another development Friday, South Sudan's National Security Service shut down one of the country's largest national broadcasters, Eye Radio. The station is known for its reggae music and messages of unity and peace, and it is funded in part by the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Government officials in Juba did not give any reason for the action.
Told of the closure of Eye Radio by a reporter, Dieng reacted with dismay. He said South Sudan's government "should have encouraged, congratulated and used [Eye Radio] as a model, and said, 'From now onwards, that is the message we want.' "