WASHINGTON - U.S. Congressmen and a top rights activist have called for the United States to step up its diplomatic efforts to end the crisis in South Sudan, including by getting President Barack Obama to make a phone call to his counterpart in Juba, President Salva Kiir.
Congressman Chris Smith from the northeastern state of New Jersey said at a hearing on Capitol Hill that a phone call from Obama to Kiir would "signal level of interest and concern", and would go a long way to helping to defuse the crisis in the world's newest nation.
Obama sent a message of peace to South Sudan shortly after fighting broke out in the capital, Juba, in December, calling on the country's leaders to end the violence and pull the country back from the edge of civil war. The message was translated into the languages of the two main ethnic groups in the country.
But Obama has not phoned Kiir, and Smith urged him to do so now, with the conflict in South Sudan well into its third month.
U.S. Special Envoy to South Sudan and Sudan Donald Booth said at the hearing, held last Wednesday that a phone call between the two heads of state was "certainly something that's on the table."
"We're calibrating when we need to use which official to try to move an issue at a particular time," Booth said in response to a question from Smith.
Obama would phone his South Sudanese counterpart "when we consider what will be the best way forward to move us off a sticking point or break any logjam" in the peace process, Booth said.
Thousands have been killed and hundreds of thousands displaced in nearly three months of fighting in South Sudan, which has continued unabated since a ceasefire agreement was signed at the end of January.
The conflict began in mid-December when a political power struggle in the ruling Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) party boiled over into clashes that Kiir said were a coup bid orchestrated by former vice president Riek Machar.
Machar has denied the accusation and has been in hiding since the unrest erupted on Dec. 15.
A first round of peace talks led to the signing of a cessation of hostilities agreement. A second round, which got under way in early February, has not yet produced any significant results.
Smith told VOA a phone call from Obama would "let them know that we're watching." He added that the time for a call from the U.S. president was now because the situation in South Sudan was not improving, with major aid agencies pulling out of embattled towns.
Top U.S. human rights advocate John Prendergast of the Enough Project, an NGO that seeks to end genocide and crimes against humanity, said the United States needs to launch a 'diplomatic surge' in South Sudan and Sudan.
"We need more senior figures... any of the three or four former secretaries of state -- Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Madeleine Albright, Hillary Clinton -- any of those people to be deployed just to demonstrate American resolve, American interest in the resolution of the conflicts in those two countries," he said.
Prendergast said that sending top U.S. officials to South Sudan would help to drive home the message to the warring sides that there will be consequences for continuing the fighting.
"Right now, the calculations of the warring parties are that they can achieve their objectives on the battlefield," Prendergast told VOA after the hearing.
"We have to steer them away from that" and one way to do that would be to "send people they respect... who can say, 'There's got to be another way to address the political disputes than going to war'," he said.
Congressman Frank Wolf, who has advocated in Congress for greater U.S. action to resolve the ongoing crises in the two Sudans, said he wants the White House to enlist the aid of Obama's predecessor, former President George W. Bush, to try to bring peace to South Sudan.
"President Bush and his team forged lasting relationships with Salva Kiir and the South Sudanese leadership and would be well positioned... to engage in diplomacy and rebuilding efforts at this critical time," Wolf told the hearing, noting that Bush gave Kiir his "trademark black cowboy hat."