Washington - A top aide of President Barack Obama spoke of her heartbreak and horror at the plight of South Sudan, which marked four turbulent years of independence on Thursday under the shadow of civil war.
The world's newest nation was thrust into turmoil 18 months ago when President Salva Kiir accused former vice president Riek Machar of planning a coup, setting off a cycle of retaliatory killings that has split the poverty-stricken country along ethnic and tribal lines.
In a heartfelt and deeply personal statement, National Security Advisor Susan Rice contrasted the joy around the world at South Sudan's independence four years ago with the current predicament the young country finds itself in.
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Rice, directly addressing the traumatized people of South Sudan, recalled being in the capital Juba with her 13-year-old son to witness the birth of a new nation.
"Four years later, those happy memories are a horrifying reminder of all that has been lost," she said.
"It breaks my heart to see what South Sudan has become today.
"Massive and widespread violence has returned. Human rights abuses are rampant. The government and rebels are committing appalling crimes against innocent women, children and the elderly."
She pointed the finger of blame squarely at Kiir, Machar and "their cronies," and said only they could end the cycle of violence that has killed tens of thousands.
"Yet President Kiir and Riek Machar would rather haggle over personal power and wealth than agree on solutions."
Rice warned the fighting threatened to destabilise the wider region and called for the warring parties to urgently forge a transitional government.
"The United States will not abandon the people of South Sudan and their right to live freely and at peace in their own country," Rice vowed.
"We will hold accountable those who abuse the people of South Sudan. And the United States along with the international community will punish those determined to drive South Sudan into the abyss."
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Her sentiments were echoed by State Department spokesperson John Kirby.
"We urge all sides to finally put the people of South Sudan first and demonstrate the leadership necessary to forge a lasting peace," he said in a statement.
"The United States along with our Troika [Britain and Norway] and EU partners stand steadfast in our support to the people of South Sudan on today's anniversary and for the long term."
No official death toll has been kept in the conflict.
In November 2014, the International Crisis Group think tank estimated that as many as 50 000 had died, but killing has continued unabated in the meantime, while hunger and disease have added even more to the toll.