President Biden signed an executive order Friday threatening sweeping new sanctions against leaders in the widening war in northern Ethiopia, the strongest effort yet by the United States to halt the fighting and allow urgently needed humanitarian aid to flow into the region.
The administration has not yet applied the sanctions, hoping to shift the course of the war without directly punishing officials from Ethiopia, Africa’s second most populous country and an important strategic ally. With both sides pushing hard for a military victory, critics said the latest measures may be too little, or too late.
Just 10 percent of required humanitarian aid reached the Tigray region last month as a result of Ethiopian government obstruction, according to two US officials who provided a background briefing to reporters.
Fighters from various factions have been accused of atrocities against civilians, with the latest accusations including the Tigrayan forces that are fighting the Ethiopian central government. And Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has intensified a mass recruitment drive, and acquired new weapons, in advance of an expected surge in fighting next month, the officials said.
“Nearly 1 million people are living in famine-like conditions,” Biden said in a statement. “Humanitarian workers have been blocked, harassed, and killed. I am appalled by the reports of mass murder, rape, and other sexual violence to terrorize civilian populations.”
The sanctions threatened by the order would target individuals and entities from the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, and the Amhara regional government, who face possible asset freezes and travel bans.
They are a step up from weaker and largely ineffectual measures, including visa restrictions, imposed by the United States in May. For now, the new sanctions have yet to be imposed on anyone, and one of the administration officials who provided background declined to give a timeline.
But action would be a matter of “weeks not months,” she said.
To avoid sanctions, leaders on both sides must agree to negotiations without preconditions and accept mediation under former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, an African Union envoy who is scheduled to land in Ethiopia this weekend.
The Ethiopian government must allow daily convoys of trucks carrying humanitarian aid to travel overland into Tigray, and restore basic services like electricity, communications, and banking, the official added.
“A different path is possible but leaders must make the choice to pursue it,” Biden said.
The Biden administration believes the conflict, which began in November, is reaching an important juncture. Citing evidence that both sides are preparing for an escalation next month, when the rainy season usually ends in northern Ethiopia, the administration officials said there was little appetite for peace talks.
They said Abiy appeared to be pushing hard for a military victory he can announce when Ethiopia’s new Parliament comes into session Oct. 8.
Last month, Abiy announced a nationwide recruiting call for able-bodied Ethiopians from across the country to join the fight against the forces from Tigray. Around that time, photos circulated online showing the Ethiopian leader inspecting an unidentified armed drone at an airport in the Afar region, bordering Tigray.
Military experts say Ethiopia was not believed to have an armed drone capability at the start of the war. It was unclear which country supplied Ethiopia with the drone.
Since the Tigray People’s Liberation Front recaptured a wide swathe of Tigray in late June, its forces have pushed deep into the neighboring Amhara region, capturing several major towns. But they have run into strong resistance from local forces in recent weeks and faced mounting accusations of violence against civilians.
Amhara officials accused the Tigrayans of killing at least 120 civilians in the Dabat district, about 50 miles north of the ancient city of Gondar, following three days of intense fighting in early September. Those accusations have not been independently confirmed.
Birhanu Mulu, manager of the hospital in the town of Nefas Mewcha, south of Gondar, said Tigrayan fighters had caused other destruction, rampaging through his hospital and destroying machinery and medication. “There are currently no patients in the hospital,” he said by phone. It was treating civilians and soldiers injured by the Tigrayans before it was attacked.
Tigrayan officials dismissed the claims of killings as “fabricated allegations” and called for an independent investigation.
A flood of reports of rights abuses, including sexual violence, massacres, and ethnic violence, have accompanied the Tigray war since it erupted in November, when Abiy sent in troops after accusing local fighters of attacking a military base.
Most accusations have been focused on those fighting the Tigrayans — Ethiopian and Eritrean troops and Amhara militias. But new research from Human Rights Watch said that one group has been victimized by both sides.
A report published by the rights group Thursday said that Eritrean refugees, who found themselves trapped in the battle zone in November, had been raped, killed, and detained by both Eritrean soldiers and rival Tigrayan militias.
“The horrific killings, rapes, and looting against Eritrean refugees in Tigray are evident war crimes,” said Laetitia Bader of Human Rights Watch.
If the conflict continues on its current trajectory, it could cause the collapse of Ethiopia, a country of over 110 million people, with “disastrous” consequences for the Horn of Africa region and beyond, the other Biden administration official said.