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US’ Ethiopia Envoy Visits Addis’ Mideast Supporters as UN Pulls Food Aid Amid TPLF Looting Claims

© AP Photo / Ben CurtisA convoy of trucks from the World Food Program stops by the side of the road after receiving news that the road ahead has been closed by the Ethiopian military with the sounds of shelling heard earlier, near Agula, in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia Saturday, May 8, 2021. Thousands of people have been killed in the fighting between Ethiopian and allied forces and Tigray ones, the result of a political struggle that turned deadly in November.
A convoy of trucks from the World Food Program stops by the side of the road after receiving news that the road ahead has been closed by the Ethiopian military with the sounds of shelling heard earlier, near Agula, in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia Saturday, May 8, 2021. Thousands of people have been killed in the fighting between Ethiopian and allied forces and Tigray ones, the result of a political struggle that turned deadly in November. - Sputnik International, 1920, 09.12.2021
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The US’ chief envoy to the Horn of Africa, Jeffrey Feltman, has embarked on a tour of three Middle Eastern nations to build an international consensus on their approach to the conflict in Ethiopia, now in its 13th month. This comes a day after the UN pulled its food aid in response to the looting of its warehouses by Tigrayan forces.
Feltman is to visit Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt in the coming days “to discuss what it is that the international community seeks when it comes to Ethiopia," State Department spokesperson Ned Price said on Wednesday. "And that is chiefly a negotiated resolution to the conflict."
Each of the three nations is a strong supporter of Abiy’s government in the conflict, with Turkey and the UAE selling Ethiopia Bayraktar TB2 and Chinese-built Winged Loong drones, respectively, along with other weapons. Egypt isn’t necessarily friendly with Abiy, but seems to at least prefer stability over chaos.
Maj. Gen. Mohammed Ali Bilal, former deputy chief of staff of the Egyptian armed forces, told Al-Monitor last month that Cairo’s major concern is the future of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), an Ethiopian hydroelectric facility on the Blue Nile to which the downstream nations of Sudan and Egypt have strongly objected.
“We are not sure if the TPLF agrees with us on the mechanisms to operate the dam,” Bilal said, adding that “Cairo wants stability in Addis Ababa so it can negotiate with a stable government.”
Elusive Ceasefire
Feltman’s newest assignment comes after talks with the government of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed last month by himself and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken that failed to yield a path to peace with the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
© AP Photo / DHA A Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 drone is seen shortly after its landing at an airport in Gecitkala, known as Lefkoniko in Greek, in Cyprus, Monday, Dec. 16, 2019
A Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 drone is seen shortly after its landing at an airport in Gecitkala, known as Lefkoniko in Greek, in Cyprus, Monday, Dec. 16, 2019 - Sputnik International, 1920, 09.12.2021
A Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 drone is seen shortly after its landing at an airport in Gecitkala, known as Lefkoniko in Greek, in Cyprus, Monday, Dec. 16, 2019
The government implemented a unilateral ceasefire in June, when the conflict was still confined to the northern Tigray state, which the rebel group did not respect, launching a new offensive into neighboring Afar and Amhara states and beginning a southerly advance on the capital. The US has demanded an immediate and universal ceasefire by all parties and sanctioned both Abiy’s government and its Eritrean allies for supposedly exacerbating the conflict.
More recently, Ethiopian Foreign Ministry spokesman Dina Mufti told reporters last month the government’s terms for a ceasefire included the TPLF’s withdrawal from Amhara and Afar, cessation of attacks against government forces, and recognizing the legitimacy of Abiy’s government.
“In order for there to be a peaceful solution, they say it takes two to tango,” Dina said at the time.
The TPLF rejected those terms outright, with little surprise: as Sputnik reported at the time, American and European diplomats have been secretly meeting with TPLF leaders, voicing their support for the group’s rapid advance and speaking of a “transition government” after the anticipated capture of Addis Ababa and the collapse of Abiy’s government.
That outcome seems less possible now thanks to a government counteroffensive that has pushed the TPLF back on its heels, pushing them hundreds of kilometers back from the capital and totally out of Afar.
Food Aid Ended Amid TPLF Withdrawal
The UN World Food Program (WTF) announced on Wednesday it was suspending the distribution of food aid in Kombolcha and Dessie, two cities in eastern Amhara that the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) retook from the TPLF in recent days.
According to UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric, WFP staff there faced "extreme intimidation" by TPLF soldiers, who seized the two cities, which are just 7 miles apart, in late October.
"The small-scale theft of food escalated into mass looting of warehouses across Kombolcha in recent days, reportedly by elements of the Tigrayan forces and some members of the local population," Dujarric told reporters.
"Such harassment of humanitarian staff by armed forces is unacceptable. It undermines the ability of the United Nations and all of our humanitarian partners to deliver assistance when it is most needed," he added.
It’s unclear why the UN decided to end food aid in Dessie, a city of 600,000, in a region where the international body estimates 9.4 million people are in need of food aid, after the infringing party has lost control of the city. However, Ethiopians have in the past accused the US Agency for International Development (USAID) of “weaponizing aid” after its funding for food relief in Ethiopia was partially pulled over the summer in some of the first concrete measures Washington took against Abiy’s government.
© SputnikA protester at a pro-Ethiopian government rally outside the White House in Washington, DC, on November 8, 2021, holds a sign saying "USAID is a Disgrace to the American People."
A protester at a pro-Ethiopian government rally outside the White House in Washington, DC, on November 8, 2021, holds a sign saying USAID is a Disgrace to the American People. - Sputnik International, 1920, 09.12.2021
A protester at a pro-Ethiopian government rally outside the White House in Washington, DC, on November 8, 2021, holds a sign saying "USAID is a Disgrace to the American People."
A similar tale of looting and terror has been told in other towns also recently liberated by the government counteroffensive.
In Lalibela, a historic town to the north where ancient Orthodox Christian churches were cut from the living rock, residents described widespread looting by the TPLF, especially in the days before their withdrawal. Targeted sites included the hospital and the airport, the latter of which is key to Lalilbea’s tourism industry.
"You couldn't ask to get anything back. There were guns, they said they would kill us," Belaynew Mengeshaw, a tour operator, told Agence France-Presse about the TPLF seizing mobile phones and food. "One of them asked me, 'Do you want Abiy to come save you?'"
Doctors and social workers in the city told AFP they had 290 malnourished children there, six of whom had died, because of inadequate food for the people.
"We couldn't treat them because the supplements had been looted by the TPLF," Temesgen Muche, a social worker at the hospital, told AFP.
They also described smuggling medicine in from towns still controlled by the government, bringing them in on donkeys under cover of darkness.
Revolt by Old US Partner
The TPLF’s revolt began in November 2020 when they attacked ENDF forces in Tigray after their regional elections, held in defiance of a national postponement due to the COVID-19 pandemic, were declared illegal. However, their dispute with Abiy began when he, an Oromo, was chosen to lead the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) political alliance in 2018 instead of a Tigrayan, as had been the case since 1991. After becoming prime minister, he set about weakening the TPLF’s once-dominant position in the government, rejecting their ethnic federalist model in favor of a more centralized party and state.
The TPLF had ruled Ethiopia for 27 years and were close partners of the US War on Terror and US Africa Command’s expansion in the early 21st century. While Abiy’s government has continued that cooperation, his 2019 rapprochement with Eritrea, which earned him a Nobel Peace Prize, helped earn lasting enmity in Washington, as the Red Sea state is the only African nation outside AFRICOM’s orbit.
The conflict has created a massive humanitarian crisis, with more than 70,000 people fleeing across the border into neighboring Sudan and an estimated 4 million more internally displaced, according to United Nations data. There is no reliable death toll for the conflict.
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