Washington (AFP) - The United States expressed horror Wednesday at reports that the South Sudan government is recruiting child soldiers to fight in its civil war and warned that officials may face sanctions.
Washington was one of the main supporters and sponsors of Africa's newest state when it gained independence from Sudan in 2011 but has been dismayed by its renewed descent into chaos and bloodshed.
Earlier this month, the UN children's agency UNICEF warned that all the factions in the civil war are recruiting children to join the fight, including President Salva Kiir's government.
On Wednesday, US State Department spokesman John Kirby said the United States was "profoundly alarmed" by the report and said halting the use of child soldiers would be a "leading priority."
"Above and beyond our calls for an end to ongoing violence in South Sudan, we insist on an immediate halt to the unlawful recruitment and use of child soldiers by government and opposition forces," he said.
"Individuals responsible for the unlawful recruitment or use of child soldiers for armed groups or forces may be subject to sanction under US law and may be targeted for UN sanctions."
An estimated 16,000 children have been recruited by armed groups -- including the national army -- since civil war began in December 2013, according to UNICEF.
Last year, the agency managed to rescue 1,775 children from armed groups, but last month's resumption of fighting between Kiir and his former deputy Riek Machar has boosted recruitment.