The U.S. State Department announced Wednesday that U.S. special envoy for the Horn of Africa Jeffrey Feltman will travel to Ethiopia Thursday for a two-day visit out of growing concern over violence in the country’s northern Tigray region.
The U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa said earlier that “the security environment in Ethiopia has deteriorated significantly in the last several days with a continued escalation of armed conflict and civil unrest in Amhara, Afar and Tigray.”
On Tuesday, the Ethiopian federal government declared a nationwide state of emergency, as its battle with Tigrayan forces reaches the one-year mark and fighting has escalated.
“The Council of Ministers has declared a nationwide state of emergency effective Tuesday, November 2, 2021,” read a statement posted by state-affiliated Fana Broadcasting Corporate S.C. on its Twitter account.
The statement said the House of Peoples’ Representatives is expected to approve the state of emergency within 24 hours.
Reuters quoted the government Tuesday as saying the Tigray People’s Liberation Front is gaining territory and considering marching on the country’s capital, Addis Ababa. Residents of the capital were told to register their weapons and prepare to defend the city.
The federal government of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has been fighting TPLF forces in Tigray for the past year. The fighters were able to take control of the province when government forces withdrew in June. Since then, fighting has expanded to the neighboring regions of Amhara and Afar, displacing thousands of people and worsening a severe hunger crisis.
Speaking Tuesday at Washington-based think tank U.S. Institute for Peace, Feltman said as many as 900,000 people in Tigray are facing famine-like conditions, while 90% of the population is in need of aid.
He said the most serious obstacle to getting food, medicine and other critical assistance to them is the federal government, which imposes bureaucratic obstacles and last month expelled seven senior U.N. humanitarian and human rights officials.
“This unfortunately suggests an intentional effort by the authorities to deprive Ethiopians who are suffering of receiving lifesaving assistance,” said Feltman.
Using food as a weapon of war can rise to the level of a war crime.
The special envoy said the government’s airstrikes and TPLF’s alliances with other disaffected armed groups are “alarming,” and warned that the country is at risk of sliding into a bigger conflagration.
“A multidecade civil war in Ethiopia would be disastrous for its future and for its people,” he said. “We urge the government of Ethiopia, the TPLF, and the other belligerents to give peace a chance; to choose a different path and engage in dialogue without preconditions.”
Feltman responded to some critics who say the United States is biased toward the TPLF, saying “this could not be further from the truth” and that the Biden administration has consistently condemned the Tigrayan forces’ expansion of the war, including reports it could move on the capital.
“Let me be clear: We oppose any TPLF move to Addis or any attempt by the TPLF to besiege Addis,” Feltman said. “This is a message we have also underscored in our engagement with TPLF leaders.”
He also said it is not true that Washington seeks to replace Abiy with a TPLF-dominated regime.
But Feltman warned that Washington cannot “continue business as usual” with the federal government and noted the announcement Tuesday from the administration that puts Ethiopia’s special trade benefits with the United States at risk over human rights violations.
On Wednesday, the U.N. Human Rights Council and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission released a report on their joint investigation into alleged human rights violations by all parties in the Tigray conflict. It said accused all parties to the conflict of committing human rights violations, some of which may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Some information in this report came from Reuters.