A UN panel of experts has recommended imposing sanctions on South Sudan's president, rebel leader and two other top officials for their role in the country's brutal war, diplomats said Tuesday.
A list of four names was submitted to the UN Security Council in a confidential annex to a report by the panel, which also calls for an arms embargo on South Sudan.
President Salva Kiir, rebel chief Riek Machar, army chief of staff Paul Malong and internal security chief Akol Koor were listed for a series of serious rights abuses, according to diplomats familiar with the document.
It is now up to the UN sanctions committee to decide whether to follow the panel's recommendation and slap a global travel ban and assets freeze on the four men.
Imposing sanctions on the leaders would be the strongest step yet taken by the 15-member council, which has been largely powerless to stop the fighting in South Sudan, one of the world's worst humanitarian crises.
The council in July imposed sanctions on six commanders -- three from each side -- but the punitive measures appeared to have little impact on the ground.
The panel of experts said Kiir and Machar were responsible for most of the violence committed during the war, now in its third year.
"There is clear and convincing evidence that most of the acts of violence committed during the war, including the targeting of civilians and violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law, have been directed by or undertaken with the knowledge of senior individuals at the highest levels of government and within the opposition," said the report obtained by AFP.
Kiir and Machar "maintain command responsibility for their respective forces" and both sides have "consistently engaged in actions and policies" that are "grounds for the imposition of targeted sanctions," said the report.
The world's youngest nation, South Sudan has been torn by fighting between forces loyal to Kiir and rebels allied with Machar since December 2013 and the violence has exploded along ethnic lines.
After much international pressure and threats of sanctions, the leaders signed a peace deal in August, but the report confirmed that the agreement had "failed to result in a meaningful reduction of violence."
- Weapons buildup -The panel said both sides were actively seeking to buy arms and military equipment, even after the signing of the peace agreement.
Last month, Kiir's forces were awaiting delivery of the fourth Mi-24 attack helicopter from a private Ukrainian company, Motor Sich, as part of a $43-million deal, said the report.
It was also seeking to buy four more attack helicopters from a Uganda-based company for $35.7 million.
Rebel forces have received ammunition, some arms and other items such as uniforms from Sudan, it added.
The panel recommended that the council "impose an embargo on the supply, sale or transfer to South Sudan" of arms, weapons, ammunition, military vehicles and spare parts to prevent a worsening of the violence.
The proposal is bound to stir controversy. Angola, China and Russia have resisted calls to slap an arms embargo on South Sudan.
The report confirmed that children were being recruited as soldiers, and that rape was used as a tactic of war by both sides, with girls often abducted to become sex slaves.
"Almost every attack on a village, whether perpetrated by the SPLA, the SPLM/A in opposition or an allied militia, is accompanied by the rape and abduction of women and girls," the report said.
Thousands have died in the war, more than 2.3 million people have been driven from their homes and 3.9 million South Sudanese face severe food shortages, an increase of 80 percent over the past year.
More than 200,000 civilians are sheltering in UN peacekeeping bases.