U.S. Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa Mike Hammer returned to Ethiopia, 12 days after fighting resumed between federal forces and Tigrayan rebels, breaking a monthslong cease-fire. The renewed clashes have quashed hopes for peace talks and threaten to spread the conflict, following reports that Eritrean forces have reentered the war and fighting is reported near the Sudan border.
Hammer arrived in Ethiopia on Sunday.
In a news release, the U.S. State Department said Hammer was planning to meet with politicians and civil society groups, “to discuss how best to promote efforts towards a lasting peace, security, and prosperity for all people in Ethiopia.”
Hammer last visited Ethiopia and met with officials in July, during the cease-fire, which the U.S. government said it found encouraging. However, he was told by Ethiopia’s Deputy Prime Minister Demeke Mekonnen that the country remains committed to African Union mediation of any peace talks.
The visit comes after fighting in the near two-year conflict between the Ethiopian federal government and rebels with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) resumed August 24, ending the five-month cease-fire.
The U.S. has condemned neighboring Eritrea's reentry into the conflict, an offensive by the TPLF, and airstrikes by the Ethiopian government, which hit civilian areas, including a kindergarten.
Before the fighting resumed peace talks looked possible, with the TPLF favoring mediation by the U.S. and Kenya’s government, while the Ethiopian government looked to the African Union to broker talks.
William Davison, an analyst with the International Crisis Group, a Belgium-based political analysis firm, said stability in Ethiopia is of great concern to the U.S.
“Above and beyond the desire to bring about peace because of its intrinsic benefits to Ethiopia because of the devastation the conflict is causing,” Davison told VOA, “the U.S. is of course concerned about the regional and geopolitical implications of increasing instability in Ethiopia, a critical country in the Horn of Africa, which is an important strategic reason itself.”
Davidson said Washington can’t force the parties to the negotiating table.
“At this point the U.S. probably doesn’t have, immediately, any extra leverage to bring to bear,” he said. “Of course, it has the diplomatic access and can implore the parties to recommit to the truce and try and achieve talks, but for the moment, the momentum has moved away from any sort of punitive measures. They did establish a sanctions regime.”
Among some Ethiopians on social media, there have been accusations the U.S. is biased toward the TPLF.
Kiram Tadesse, a pro-government commentator, holds that point of view.
“The United States and the so-called international community are not impartial and even defend the TPLF, whenever the federal forces and other allied forces launched their offensive against TPLF,” Tadesse said. “There is a clear dissatisfaction among the social media users.”
Ethiopian state and state-controlled media also frequently parrot this view.
VOA reached out to the TPLF and Ethiopian government with requests for comment on the arrival of the U.S. envoy, but neither responded.
In Tigray, humanitarian organizations say parts of the region are likely in a state of famine due to a lack of humanitarian aid being allowed in. The government has also shut down telecoms and banking there.
With clashes looking set to continue, it remains to be seen whether anyone can persuade the sides to open peace talks.