Ethiopia on the verge of escalation, diplomacy questioned

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NAIROBI, Kenya – Alarms escalated on Tuesday over Ethiopia’s impending tank attack on the rebel region capital of Tigray and its population of half a million, as the Security Council of The UN has met for the first time over the three-week-old conflict amid warnings that food in the region is running out.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s 72-hour ultimatum asking the region’s leaders to surrender ends Wednesday. His army has warned civilians of “no mercy” if they do not leave on time – which some rights groups and diplomats say could violate international law.

“The very aggressive rhetoric on both sides regarding the fight for Mekele is dangerously provocative and threatens to endanger already vulnerable and frightened civilians,” said UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet. The allegation that the Tigray leaders were hiding among civilians “does not then give the Ethiopian state carte blanche to respond with the use of artillery in densely populated areas”.

A year before taking power in Ethiopia and introducing reforms to win the Nobel Peace Prize, Abiy successfully defended a doctoral thesis on conflict resolution. Now he sits in the diplomatic capital of Africa, home of the African Union, and rejects calls for dialogue.

Meanwhile, a powerful voice in diplomatic efforts, the United States, is in disarray as the Trump administration focuses on domestic politics after losing the November election – and after President Donald Trump infuriated Ethiopia with comments on a separate issue this year.

The diplomatic vacuum has led Ethiopia, one of Africa’s most powerful and populous countries, to what Amnesty International calls “on the brink of a deadly escalation”.

Tigray refugees who fled conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray board a boat on the banks of the Tekeze River on the Sudan-Ethiopia border in Hamdayet, eastern Sudan, on Saturday. The UN refugee agency says the growing conflict in Ethiopia has led thousands to flee the Tigray region to Sudan as the fighting spills out beyond Ethiopia’s borders and threatens to ignite the Horn of Africa region. (AP Photo / Nariman El-Mofty)

Just before the assault on Mekele, the UN Security Council met behind closed doors on Tuesday to discuss the situation in Ethiopia for the first time. Members expressed support for the new AU-led envoy effort, a Council diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the conversation.

Over the weekend, the current AU President, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, backed three high-level envoys, an initiative that the UN chief quickly hailed for “his efforts to peacefully resolve the conflict ”.

But in an unusually public disagreement, Ethiopia said the envoys would meet with Abiy, not the Tigray rulers.

“All possible scenarios will be on the table for discussion, except bringing the gang to the table as a legitimate entity,” senior Ethiopian official Redwan Hussein told reporters. Abiy’s government insists that the leaders of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front are fugitives.

Former Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, writing in Foreign Policy, warns of “superficial dialogues” negotiated at the international level that could reward TPLF leaders with impunity and lead other reluctant ethnic groups to think “violence is chargeable ”.

The TPLF dominated the Ethiopian government for more than a quarter of a century, but was sidelined after Abiy took office in 2018 and sought to centralize power in a country long ruled by ethnic lines. . The TPLF withdrew when Abiy dissolved the ruling coalition, then infuriated the federal government by holding an election in September after COVID-19 postponed national elections. Each party now considers the other to be illegal.

Meanwhile, hundreds if not thousands of people have been killed, some 40,000 people have fled to Sudan and the UN says 2 million people in the cordoned area of ​​Tigray are in urgent need of assistance. This number has doubled in three weeks.

There are no humanitarian corridors, no humanitarian ceasefire. Soon there will be no more food or fuel.

“We have not been able to send supplies since the start of the conflict, and this is due to the blockage of all parties,” UN humanitarian spokesman Saviano Abreu told The Associated Press . Almost 100,000 Eritrean refugees have a week’s worth of food left inside Tigray, he said, and within hours the fuel will run out to pump clean drinking water.

“The people of Tigray are terrified,” he said.

With the crisis exploding, some were dismayed to hear America’s top diplomat for Africa, Tibor Nagy, repeat Washington’s position that the TPLF was to blame for seeking to oust Abiy – and yet assert that the United States had little information from inside the Tigray region. communications interrupted.

The US position is notably different from other high-profile appeals, which urge both sides to de-escalate immediately without attributing blame.

Mediation is “not an objective in itself. I mean, our goal is a quick end to the conflict, ”Nagy told reporters late last week. US Ambassador to Ethiopia Michael Raynor added that in his discussions with Abiy and Tigray leader Debretsion Gebremichael, “there was a strong commitment on both sides to bring the military conflict to a successful conclusion.”

Alarmed, nearly 20 US senators urged Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to engage Abiy directly before it is too late.

Tabby refugees who fled the conflict in Ethiopian Tigray arrive with their donkeys on the banks of the Tekeze River, at the Sudano-Ethiopian border, in Hamdayet, in eastern Sudan. (AP Photo / Nariman El-Mofty)

Cameron Hudson, former director of African affairs at the National Security Council and senior researcher for the Atlantic Council think tank, told the AP he found the American idea that mediation was not there ‘astounding’ goal. “When you are making absolutely no progress then you have to have progressive steps,” he says.

There does not appear to be “confidence but verifications” in the US position, Hudson added.

“We have the largest drone base in Africa 500 miles from where the fighting is being waged,” he said, referring to the US military base in neighboring Djibouti. Its use against al-Shabab extremists in Somalia is “not so intensive at this point that we cannot spare some of the means in this theater to help us determine what is going on inside Tigray at Unless we’ve decided… we don’t want to know. for ourselves. ”

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Hudson said it appears the State Department is trying to restore the United States’ credibility with Abiy and regain influence, after Trump did “significant damage” with a campaign to punish Ethiopia for its position in a dispute with Egypt over the construction of a huge dam on the Blue Nile. In a rare intervention on an African issue, Trump asked the State Department to suspend millions of dollars in aid to Ethiopia and claimed Egypt would “blow up” the dam.

Now there are signs that others in the Trump administration are pushing for dialogue, and quickly. The National Security Council tweeted overnight: “United States calls for mediation in Ethiopia and supports efforts led by Cyril Ramaphosa and the African Union to end this tragic conflict now.”

President-elect Joe Biden’s candidate for Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged last week that “the TPLF and the Ethiopian authorities should take urgent action to end the conflict.” His office said he was not available for comment.

But where Ethiopia will be when Biden takes office in two months is unknown.

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