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Western concern mounts over Ethiopian crisis

©FT | UK, US and EU push for humanitarian relief to get to the war-ravaged Tigray region

Ethiopia’s reputation is “being tarnished” by the military conflict, UK foreign secretary Dominic Raab has said, ahead of his visit to the east African country on Friday to urge Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to allow unrestricted humanitarian access to the Tigray region.

Mr Raab has joined a chorus of senior western diplomats, including US secretary of state nominee Antony Blinken and the EU minister for foreign affairs Josep Borrell, who have all expressed concern about the humanitarian situation in the war-ravaged northern region.

“Until this conflagration, [Ethiopia] has had a, if you like, a reputation as a beacon, and of course it’s being tarnished. There’s no doubt, there’s no escaping it. I want to talk to Prime Minister Abiy. But above all, what we want to focus on right now is getting humanitarian relief,” Mr Raab told the Financial Times during the first leg of a tour that will take him to Sudan and Ethiopia, where aid agencies have expressed concerns about limited access to impoverished Tigray.

Addis Ababa launched a military campaign on November 4 against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the movement that governed Ethiopia for almost three decades until Mr Abiy took office in 2018, seeking to push through liberal economic reforms. Saying the offensive was a response to TPLF attacks on federal forces in the Tigrayan capital Mekelle, Mr Abiy — who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 — launched “a law enforcement” operation that included air strikes and ground troops.

While the government has declared the war over, the conflict in Tigray has exposed ethnic faultlines, with ethnic-motivated attacks still being reported in parts of Ethiopia, and tens of thousands of refugees heading across the border into Sudan. Western donors say the delivery of humanitarian aid has been hindered by ongoing bouts of violence.

In a US Senate hearing this week Mr Blinken said that “we have seen a number of deeply, deeply concerning atrocities directed at both people in Tigray, directed at Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia, I think we need to see much greater access to the region, accountability . . . we need to see restoration of communications, we need to see access for humanitarian assistance in the region”.

“The situation on the ground goes well beyond a purely internal ‘law and order’ operation,” Mr Borrell said last week, freezing €88m in budget support for Ethiopia, until aid agencies were granted better access to the region.

“We receive consistent reports of ethnic-targeted violence, killings, massive looting, rapes, forceful returns of refugees and possible war crimes,” he said. “More than two million people have been internally displaced. And while people are in dire need of aid, access to the affected region remains limited, which makes it very difficult to deliver humanitarian assistance.”

There have been recent reports of “additional military incursions”, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi, said last week. These were “consistent with open source satellite imagery showing new fires burning and other fresh signs of destruction” at two camps hosting nearly 100,000 Eritrean refugees in Tigray, who have fled Eritrea over the years, he said.

Some Eritrean refugees were being forced to return to the repressive state, he added, amid growing reports of involvement of Eritrean forces, a longstanding enemy of the TPLF, in the Tigray conflict. “Clear evidence exists,” said a senior US diplomat, “of Eritrean direct involvement.”

Ethiopia’s government said this week that it had been working with humanitarian agencies to deliver aid to 1.8m people.

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