New US sanctions placed on Eritrea over Ethiopia's Tigray war

Chief of staff of Eritrean defence forces has been sanctioned under Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act

A civilian who said he was shot by Eritrean forces during their advance into Ethiopia recovers in a hospital in Tigray. AP

The US on Monday imposed new sanctions over Ethiopia's deadly Tigray conflict as hundreds of thousands of people face famine conditions under a government blockade the US has called a “siege".

The Treasury Department in a statement said the chief of staff of the defence forces of neighbouring Eritrea, Filipos Woldeyohannes, was sanctioned under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act for leading an entity accused of “despicable acts” including massacres, widespread sexual assault and the executions of children.

The statement again calls on Eritrea to remove its soldiers from Ethiopia's Tigray region permanently.

The nine-month war has killed thousands of people and left observers shocked after Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, teamed up with former enemy Eritrea to wage war on the forces of the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF).

Scores of witnesses have described to The Associated Press abuses such as gang rapes, the destruction of health centres, the burning of crops and forced expulsions. Eritreans have been accused of some of the worst abuses. Ethiopia's government denied their presence in Tigray for months.

“The [Eritrean Defence Forces] have purposely shot civilians in the street and carried out systematic house-to-house searches, executing men and boys, and have forcibly evicted Tigrayan families from their residences and taken over their houses and property,” the new US statement said.

Eritrea’s information minister, Yemane Gebremeskel, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The country shares a border with the Tigray region and has been described by human rights groups as one of the world’s most repressive nations.

The US this year signalled it was also losing patience with Ethiopia, Africa’s second most populous country, suspending millions of dollars in aid to a key security ally in the Horn of Africa and imposing visa restrictions on Ethiopians involved in the war.

The TPLF have since retaken much of the Tigray region, forcing Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers to retreat and regroup. But “the United States is concerned that large numbers of [Eritrean Defence Forces] have re-entered Ethiopia after withdrawing in June,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement.

The Tigray forces have now crossed into the Amhara and Afar regions, ignoring calls from the US and UN to withdraw and vowing to press as far as the capital, Addis Ababa, to end the hostilities. Hundreds of thousands of people in Amhara and Afar have fled in the face of their advance, some alleging abuses against civilians.

Meanwhile, the Ethiopian government has called all capable citizens to war and has again cut off the Tigray region, with phone, internet and banking services down and humanitarian aid brought almost at a standstill.

Only 7 per cent of the needed aid is reaching the region and food aid inside Tigray has now run out, the US Agency for International Development said last week.

On the defensive, Ethiopia’s government has rejected international “meddling” and accused humanitarian groups of arming or otherwise supporting the TPLF.

The US sanctions represent new pressure to stop the fighting, allow unrestricted access to Tigray and engage in dialogue. But Ethiopia’s government has declared the Tigray leadership, who long dominated the country’s government before Mr Abiy came to power and sidelined them, a terrorist group.

And the Tigray forces have laid out several conditions for talks, including the resumption of basic services to the region.

Updated: August 23rd 2021, 5:42 PM