US tells citizens to flee Ethiopia as Abiy vows to lead from battlefront

Prime minister's rhetoric marks ongoing failure to push Ethiopia’s warring parties to negotiating table

People gather behind a placard showing Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed at a rally organised by local authorities to show support for the Ethiopian National Defence Force in Addis Ababa. AP
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The US on Monday once again warned its citizens to leave Ethiopia after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed vowed to lead the army “from the battlefront” as forces from the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and its allies advance towards Addis Ababa.

“This is a time when leading a country with martyrdom is needed,” Mr Abiy wrote in a lengthy Twitter statement.

Shortly after Mr Abiy posted his statement, a senior State Department official reiterated calls for US citizens to flee the country, saying that the US would not be able to conduct an Afghanistan-style evacuation should Americans become trapped in Ethiopia.

“The US embassy is unlikely to be able to assist US citizens in Ethiopia with departure if commercial options become unavailable,” the State Department official told reporters on a call.

“We cannot predict when and if conditions might change. Now is the time to reach out to the embassy for departure assistance.”

The official noted that the State Department does not know how many US citizens remain in Ethiopia, but that some dual citizens have been detained in Mr Abiy’s roundup of members of the Tigrayan ethnic group.

Meanwhile on Monday, Jeffrey Feltman, the US special envoy for the Horn of Africa, returned from Ethiopia, where he met Deputy Prime Minister Demeke Mekonnen in a bid to convince Addis Ababa to enter into peace negotiations with the TPLF.

“Our message and focus remain clear: an immediate cessation of hostilities without preconditions, access for all those in need — regardless of ethnicity or geography — to life-saving humanitarian assistance and an immediate end to human rights abuses and violations,” a second senior State Department official told reporters.

Neither State Department official would comment on Mr Abiy’s vow to personally involve himself in the fighting.

The administration of US President Joe Biden has used sanctions and other penalties on Ethiopia to convince Mr Abiy to come to the negotiating table — so far to no avail.

The US went so far as to expel Ethiopia from the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which provides eligible countries with duty-free access to the US market for thousands of products.

“US officials have repeatedly warned the Ethiopian government that it was at risk of losing eligibility under AGOA if violations went unaddressed,” the State Department official told The National.

“And we continue to urge the government to take steps necessary to retain or regain AGOA and benefits.”

Still, the State Department official said that “we still believe that a small window of opportunity exists” to end the bloodshed before it accelerates further.

The TPLF joined eight other rebel groups, including the Oromo Liberation Army, and began its advance on Addis Ababa this month.

Ethiopia has cut internet, phone and media access in Tigray since the conflict erupted last year between the TPLF and Ethiopian government forces, backed by Eritrean troops and Amhara militias.

Witnesses have described widespread human rights abuses in Tigray, including the displacement and murder of civilians, gang rapes, the destruction of civilian infrastructure and the burning of crops.

Amnesty International has documented sexual violence and civilian casualties in Tigray at the hands of Ethiopian forces and their allies.

The human rights organisation has also documented similar human rights abuses against civilians in neighbouring Amhara at the hands of the TPLF.

Updated: November 22, 2021, 10:26 PM