US blacklists Eritrean military over conflict in Ethiopia

Secretary of State Antony Blinken says Ethiopia could 'implode'

A police officer stands guard during a pro-government rally in Addis Ababa. Reuters
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The US on Friday imposed far-reaching sanctions on Eritrea's military, ruling party and key business entities over their role in fuelling the war in neighbouring Ethiopia.

President Joe Biden's administration announced the sanctions on four Eritrean entities and two people pursuant to an executive order he issued in September.

Most notably, the sanctions were placed on the Eritrean Defence Forces for their role in the conflict roiling Ethiopia's Tigray and Amhara regions.

“We condemn the continued role played by Eritrean actors who are contributing to the violence in northern Ethiopia, which has undermined the stability and integrity of the state and resulted in a humanitarian disaster,” said Andrea Gacki, director of the Office of Foreign Assets Control at the Treasury Department.

The US sanctions referred tonumerous reports of looting, sexual assault, killing civilians and blocking humanitarian aid” by the Eritrean military, with its soldiers accused of disguising themselves “in old Ethiopian military uniforms, manning checkpoints, obstructing and occupying critical aid routes, and threatening medical staff in one of northern Ethiopia’s few operating hospitals".

The designation said the Eritrean military is responsible for obstructing possibilities for a lasting ceasefire in northern Ethiopia.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed called on the Eritrean government to help in his war on Tigray last year, but following reports of atrocities in February, he pledged that the foreign forces would withdraw from the country.

Months later, however, the withdrawal has yet to occur, despite repeated US calls for Eritrean forces to pull out.

The Treasury also sanctioned the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), the ruling party in Eritrea, led by President Isaias Afwerki.

The head of the Eritrean National Security Office, Abraha Kassa Nemariam, is among those on the latest US blacklist, with the sanctions statement saying he “is responsible for or complicit in” the conflict in Ethiopia.

The Hidri Trust, an Eritrean business entity which is the holding company of all PFDJ business enterprises, was also sanctioned. The party's economic adviser, Hagos Ghebrehiwet W Kidan, was blacklisted as well.

Friday’s sanctions are the most sweeping so far by the US in the conflict in Ethiopia.

But Cameron Hudson, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Africa Centre, argued that the sanctions are missing the mark.

“By once again targeting Eritrean actors, who remain worthy of sanctioning, the action appears inconsistent with recent US statements which put the bulk of culpability on Ethiopian and Tigrayan forces [fighting in the war],” Mr Hudson told The National.

He saw the intentions of the sanctions as being purely punitive and unlikely to change the behaviour of the principal protagonists of the war.

“Eritrea will continue to claim that it is just Washington's punching bag and I fear that neither the Tigrayans or government side will take this as the shot across their bows as it was likely intended,” he said.

The US envoy to the Horn of Africa, Jeffrey Feltman, is in the region to broker a cessation of hostilities in the year-long conflict and open a pathway for humanitarian aid to Tigray.

The US is working closely with African Union envoy African Olusegun Obasanjo to help reach a ceasefire.

The war in Tigray enters its second year

The war in Tigray enters its second year
Updated: November 12, 2021, 5:50 PM