US sanctions South Sudan first vice president Taban Deng Gai
South Sudan's First Vice President Taban Deng Gai speaks during the General Debate of the 73rd session of the General Assembly at the United Nations in New York on September 28, 2018. (Photo by KENA BETANCUR / AFP)

The United States Treasury Department in a statement on Wednesday said it has imposed sanctions on the first vice president Taban Teng Gai, in Washington’s latest move to pressure politicians to form a unity government.

The Treasury Department said Taban arranged and directed the alleged killings of opposition politicians Aggrey Idri Ezibon and Dong Samuel Luak in a move to solidify his position in the government and intimidate members of the opposition.

Presidential spokesman Ateny Wek Ateny, told Reuters News Agency after the sanctions were announced that Washington’s move will worsen the situation in the country.

Gai “is very helpful in the implementation of the peace and … he should be encouraged,” the spokesman said, adding that there was no evidence that any government officials were involved in the killings cited by Treasury.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a statement calling on the government and opposition leaders to create distance from those who spoil the peace process. He said Taban, on behalf of Kiir, acted to “divide and sow distrust, extend the conflict in South Sudan, and impede the reconciliation and peace process”.

Taban could not immediately be reached for comment.

He is the latest South Sudanese official to be sanctioned by Washington. Last month, the US blacklisted two cabinet ministers, days after slapping sanctions on five lower-level officials it says are responsible for the likely murder of the two human rights activists in 2017.

The sanctions, implemented under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act that targets perpetrators of serious human rights abuses and corruption, freeze any of Gai’s US assets and generally prohibit Americans from doing business with him.

“Taban Deng Gai’s attempt to silence the opposition party is derailing the country’s ability to implement a peace agreement,” said Treasury Deputy Secretary Justin Muzinich in the statement.

President Kiir and opposition leader Riek Machar signed a peace deal in 2018 to form the unity government by November 12. But days before the deadline, the two leaders gave themselves an extension of 100 days to implement the agreement, a move criticized by Washington.

In November, the US recalled its ambassador from South Sudan and said it was re-evaluating its relationship with the African country’s government.