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US genocide expert to press Ethiopia on Tigray aid blockade

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Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

FILE - In this Friday July 2, 2021 file photo, captured members of the Ethiopian National Defense Force are marched through the streets to prison under guard by Tigray Forces as hundreds of residents look on, in Mekele, in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia. Samantha Power, the U.S. official who wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning book on genocide is visiting Ethiopia next week to press the government to lift what the U.S. calls a blockade on humanitarian aid to the conflict-hit Tigray region, where hundreds of thousands of people now face deadly famine. (AP Photo/File)

NAIROBI – The U.S. official who wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning book on genocide is visiting Ethiopia next week to press the government to lift what the U.S. calls a blockade on humanitarian aid to the conflict-hit Tigray region, where hundreds of thousands of people now face deadly famine.

Samantha Power, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, hopes to meet with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who has asserted that “there is no hunger in Tigray,” and with senior officials who blame the aid blockade on rival Tigray forces who have retaken much of the region and vow to pursue “enemies” beyond its borders.

The Ethiopian government’s assertion that Tigray forces are to blame is “100% not the case,” a senior USAID official told The Associated Press, adding that “our primary obstacle is the government.” The official was not authorized to discuss the matter by name and spoke on condition of anonymity. Witnesses have told the AP this has been the problem in Tigray for months.

While the senior official said insecurity preventing movement along roads could be an issue, “what we’re seeing is (aid) convoys being turned around at checkpoints manned by Ethiopian soldiers or their proxies ... It’s not a question of being turned around by Tigrayans. I think (the Tigray forces) have been messaging very clearly they’re ready to support humanitarian activities.”

Power has requested a meeting with Ethiopia’s prime minister, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for restoring ties with neighboring Eritrea but has since joined forces with Eritrea to wage war in the Tigray region after a political falling-out with the region’s leaders. The conflict is now spreading into neighboring regions in Africa's second most populous country, long a key U.S. security ally.

Some 6 million Tigray residents have been caught in the fighting since the war began in November, when Abiy accused Tigray forces of attacking a military base. Thousands of civilians have since been killed. Now the U.S. estimates up to 900,000 face famine conditions after Ethiopian and allied forces destroyed crops, looted food supplies and threatened farmers from planting. Food prices are rising, while banks remain closed.

Recently Ethiopia's government accused humanitarian groups of supporting the Tigray forces, making life more dangerous in a region where aid workers have been harassed and at least a dozen killed.

The U.S. earlier imposed aid cuts and visa restrictions over the Tigray crisis, angering Ethiopian officials, and Power’s visit will warn of “continuing consequences” for the government, the senior official said. There were no details, but “the longer that this blockage goes on, the more likely we are to see additional punitive measures.”

Tigray remains almost completely cut off from the outside world. The United Nations has said some 200 aid-laden trucks are “stuck” in Ethiopia’s neighboring Afar region on the only remaining road access to Tigray. Bridges on other routes were destroyed as Ethiopian forces retreated from the region in June.

“People are starving,” U.N. World Food Program head David Beasley said this week, warning that the agency will run out of food for Tigray on Friday. The AP has reported that scores of people have died of starvation in the world's worst famine crisis in a decade.

Ethiopia’s government on Wednesday said it stands by the unilateral cease-fire it declared in June as its military withdrew, saying it was for humanitarian reasons. The government has said the cease-fire will end once the planting season in Tigray is over, meaning September, and already authorities are supporting military recruiting drives amid concerns over a new offensive.

Abiy’s spokeswoman, Billene Seyoum, accused Tigray forces of blocking the delivery of aid. “The international community has been shockingly mute” on the Tigray forces’ actions, which include crossing into the Afar and neighboring Amhara regions, she said.

The Tigray forces this week said the establishment of multiple humanitarian aid corridors is a precondition for talks on a negotiated cease-fire.

Power during her visit will press for “overland access” for aid, the senior USAID official told the AP. While she is first visiting neighboring Sudan, which borders Tigray and is a potential supply route, “right now the principal focus is on getting the Ethiopian government to allow food convoys through Ethiopia into Tigray,” the senior official said. Other ways are being explored but would be “inadequate to meet the scale of need.”

The WFP has said 20 convoys of 100 trucks each need to enter Tigray every month to meet needs and “so far we’ve gotten one,” the senior official said. A second convoy was attacked in Afar earlier this month. The U.N. on Wednesday said 44 trucks are now trying to reach Tigray.

The new U.N. humanitarian chief, Martin Griffiths, on Thursday began a six-day Ethiopia tour and plans to visit Tigray to meet with civilians, the U.N. said, in another sign of renewed international pressure.

Because of the fighting, Power is “not permitted” to travel to Tigray, the senior USAID official said.

And while Power has been outspoken about Tigray, she will not use the word “genocide” in referring to the region because the U.S. State Department is determining what legal term to use for what’s occurring there, the senior official said.

“Certainly, ethnic targeting of Tigrayans, the rhetoric seen from Abiy recently, really dehumanizing rhetoric about his own citizens, is very concerning and certainly reminiscent of other conflicts in which we’ve seen mass atrocities committed,” the senior official said.

Ethiopia’s prime minister earlier this month described the Tigray forces as “weeds” and a “cancer,” further alarming ethnic Tigrayans who have alleged that thousands of non-combatants have been detained during the conflict because of their identity alone.