A woman leans on the wall of a damaged house which was shelled as federal-aligned forces entered the city, in Wukro, north of…
FILE - A woman leans on the wall of a damaged house which was shelled as federal-aligned forces entered the city, in Wukro, north of Mekele, in Tigray, March 1, 2021.

WASHINGTON - A U.S. senator whom President Joe Biden sent as an emissary to Ethiopia says he urged Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to declare a cease-fire in the embattled Tigray region, but his appeal was rejected.

“I pressed for a unilateral declaration of a cease-fire, something the prime minister did not agree to, and pressed for a rapid move towards a full political dialogue on Tigray's future political structure,” Senator Chris Coons told reporters during a briefing call Thursday.

FILE - Senator Chris Coons (D-Del.) speaks during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Feb. 22, 2021.

Coons is a close ally of Biden and a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He just returned from a short trip to the Horn of Africa nation, seeking a halt to nearly five months of fighting between the Ethiopian National Defense Forces and the region’s former ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).

The conflict has killed thousands and displaced nearly 1 million people. Aid workers report refugees who have fled to Sudan and others displaced inside Ethiopia are arriving at camps emaciated and traumatized, with only the clothes on their backs. Many women have been raped.

FILE - In this Nov. 30, 2020 file photo, Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed responds to questions from members of parliament at the prime minister's office in the capital Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Human rights test

The conflict is emerging as an early test of the Biden administration’s commitment to return to a foreign policy focused on human rights. 

Coons said he met with Abiy for five hours over two days. He also had meetings with other senior Ethiopian officials, the chief commissioner of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, as well as the chair of the African Union Commission, NGOs and members of the diplomatic community.

The U.S. senator welcomed the Ethiopian prime minister’s pledge to hold all human rights violators accountable, regardless of which force they belong to.

“I think those are encouraging public statements,” Coons said. “It's actions that are going to matter, and whether or not complete transparency and access is provided to human rights investigators and whether or not there is accountability, particularly for some of the alarming and credible allegations of human rights violations, is going to be critical to any successful resolution of this conflict in Tigray.”

Abiy also expressed support for a joint investigation into reported atrocities to be conducted by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission and the U.N. Human Rights office. On Thursday, those two organizations announced that they will deploy a mission “as soon as possible” to the region for an initial period of three months. 

In New York, Wafa Saeed, who recently returned from Tigray where she was the U.N. deputy humanitarian coordinator for three months, told a U.N. meeting that protection issues remain urgent.

“Women say they have been raped by armed actors, they also told stories of gang rape, rape in front of family members and men being forced to rape their own family members under the threat of violence,” Saeed said. 

Of people displaced by the fighting, she said they told stories of their difficult and dangerous journey in search of safety, some walking for two weeks and as far as 500 kilometers.

People mourn the victims of a massacre allegedly perpetrated by Eritrean soldiers in the village of Dengolat, North of Mekele, the capital of Tigray on Feb. 26, 2021.

Growing humanitarian crisis

Coons said Abiy also promised to facilitate unhindered aid access, a step the U.N. and NGOs have been pushing for since the start of the crisis in early November.

Humanitarians say access has improved in recent weeks, but they are still having difficulties reaching people, particularly in remote rural areas and across conflict lines.

The United Nations estimates that 23.5 million people will need humanitarian assistance in Ethiopia this year thanks to multiple shocks — the violence in Tigray, drought, the worst desert locust infestation in a generation, and the socio-economic impact of COVID-19. About 4.5 million of those in need are in Tigray.

U.N. humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock warned earlier this month that parts of the country could potentially see large-scale famine if aid does not reach the most vulnerable. Food insecurity is rising, as both harvests and markets have been disrupted by the fighting.