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Biden Opens Door to Sanctions Over Tigray Conflict

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FILE - Tigrayan forces ride in a truck after taking control of Mekele, in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia, June 29, 2021.

An executive order signed Friday by U.S. President Joe Biden seeks to slap harsh sanctions on all sides involved in the war in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region — including the governments of Ethiopia and Eritrea.

In the order, Biden said the region had seen “widespread violence, atrocities, and serious human rights abuse, including those involving ethnic-based violence, rape and other forms of gender-based violence, and obstruction of humanitarian operations.”

“The new executive order I signed today establishes a new sanctions regime that will allow us to target those responsible for, or complicit in, prolonging the conflict in Ethiopia, obstructing humanitarian access, or preventing a ceasefire,” Biden said in a statement Friday.

“These sanctions are not directed at the people of Ethiopia or Eritrea, but rather the individuals and entities perpetrating the violence and driving a humanitarian disaster.”

The sweeping order prompted swift pushback from Ethiopia’s leader, who accused the United States ofputting on “unwarranted pressure, characterized by double standards.”

“As a long-time friend, strategic ally and partner in security, the United States’ recent policy against my country comes not only as a surprise to our proud nation, but evidently surpasses humanitarian concerns,” wrote Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in an open letter to Biden, obtained by VOA.

The order allows the U.S. Treasury Department to impose sanctions if steps are not taken soon to end 10 months of fighting. It did not name any individuals, but the criteria are broad and extensive, including even the spouses and adult children of individuals the State Department deems to have met the criteria. The order also provides for sanctions against the regional government of Amhara region, and the rebel Tigray People's Liberation Front.

Displaced Tigrayans queue to receive food donated by local residents at a reception center for the internally displaced in Mekele, in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia, May 9, 2021.
Displaced Tigrayans queue to receive food donated by local residents at a reception center for the internally displaced in Mekele, in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia, May 9, 2021.

Conflict started in the region in November, after TPLF rebels attacked a federal military base, and Abiy ordered a counteroffensive. Tensions had been simmering between the federal government and regional leaders for months.

Previous U.S. attempts to pressure the warring factions, including visa restrictions against Ethiopian and Eritrean officials, have not been successful.

“The United States is determined to push for a peaceful resolution of this conflict, and we will provide full support to those leading mediation efforts, including the African Union High Representative for the Horn of Africa Olusegun Obasanjo,” said Biden.“We fully agree with United Nations and African Union leaders: there is no military solution to this crisis.”

Also Friday, U.S. Senators Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Chris Coons (D-Del.) released a joint statement pledging legislative action. Both men sit on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; Menendez is the chairman.

“Continuing human rights abuses by the parties to the conflict in Ethiopia warrant an unequivocal response: We will not tolerate war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic violence,” they said.

“In that vein, we will unveil a new legislative effort in the coming weeks for Congress to drastically bolster U.S. efforts to pursue accountability for the carnage in the Tigray region as this protracted ethnic conflict approaches the one-year mark. It is our hope that this effort will help galvanize a political process to help stabilize Ethiopia.”

The war is threatening the stability of Ethiopia, Africa’s second most populous country.

The conflict has triggered the world’s largest hunger crisis, leaving millions of people in need of humanitarian aid.

On Thursday, U.S. officials said only 10% of humanitarian supplies for the embattled Tigray region have been allowed to enter the area over the past month.

The U.S. and the United Nations say the trucks transporting essential aid such as food and water to the area have been blocked by Ethiopian troops.

Some information in this report came from the Associated Press and Reuters.

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