Biden dispatches senior US senator to Ethiopia in latest warning shot on Tigray

Chris Coons' trip comes a week after abuses in Tigray were described as 'ethnic cleansing'

FILE PHOTO: Senator Chris Coons (D-DE) during Attorney General nominee Merrick Garland's confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Washington, DC U.S., February 22, 2021.  Demetrius Freeman/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo
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The Biden administration announced on Thursday it is sending Chris Coons, a senator from Delaware and an ally and confidant of President Joe Biden, to Ethiopia to mediate the crisis in the Tigray region amid escalatory rhetoric between Washington and Addis Ababa.

National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan issued a statement saying that Mr Coons is on his way to Ethiopia and will be meeting Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali.

Fighting between Ethiopian troops and the Tigray People's Liberation Front has left more than 50,000 dead, according to Ethiopia's three opposition parties, and displaced hundreds of thousands during four months of conflict.

Last week, Secretary of State Tony Blinken stepped up US rhetoric and described events in the region as "ethnic cleansing". He told Congress that forces from Eritrea and Amhara must be replaced with "a force that will not abuse the human rights of the people of Tigray or commit acts of ethnic cleansing, which we've seen in western Tigray". Mr Blinken also had two calls with Mr Abiy Ahmed Ali to urge an immediate ceasefire.

In sending Mr Coons, the Biden administration is showing more urgency in addressing the crisis on the presidential level. Mr Coons is a long-time friend and ally of Mr Biden.

“Senator Coons will convey President Biden’s grave concerns about the humanitarian crisis and human rights abuses in the Tigray region and the risk of broader instability in the Horn of Africa. He will also consult with the African Union on how to advance the region's shared interests in peace and prosperity,” Mr Sullivan said.

Cameron Hudson, a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council's Africa Centre and a former US official, saw Mr Coons’ trip as being similar to the shuttle diplomacy employed by John Kerry during the Darfur crisis.

"As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, [Mr] Kerry then travelled many times to the region during the conflict in Darfur and then during the lead-up to the separation of South Sudan, each time carrying a message that reinforced the administration's policies or previewed upcoming policy shifts," Mr Hudson told The National.

Similar to Mr Kerry’s capacity, Mr Coons is “a trusted third party, not formally representing the US government, but not freelancing with his own agenda".

The expert said that Mr Coons' trip will give more urgency to Mr Blinken’s “serious messages” to Mr Abiy Ahmed.

"Senator Coons can reinforce that message and also signal that time is running out for Ethiopia to change course in Tigray – to agree to a ceasefire and removing any remaining obstacles to humanitarian access – before the US is forced into a more aggressive policy posture involving punitive measures," Mr Hudson said.

He described the visit as the “last off-ramp before the growing calls for sanctions [on Ethiopia] are acted upon".

In the call to Addis Ababa, Mr Blinken pressed for an immediate end to hostilities and the withdrawal of outside forces from Tigray.

Before Mr Coons’s trip, Mr Blinken announced an additional $52 million in US assistance to Tigray humanitarian crisis, bringing total US contributions to about $153 million.

“The assistance from the American people will enable our international humanitarian partners to help some of the estimated 4.5 million people in need in Tigray and nearly 62,000 refugees who have fled to Sudan,” Mr Blinken said.

Mr Blinken said “a cessation of hostilities, the immediate withdrawal of Eritrean forces and an end to the Ethiopian government’s deployment of Amhara regional forces in Tigray” were essential first steps.

He also called for accountability for all those responsible for human rights abuses and atrocities, “whether they be in the Ethiopian National Defence Forces, Tigray People’s Liberation Front forces, Eritrea Defence Forces or Amhara regional forces.”