The administration of US President Joe Biden is sending its envoy for the Horn of Africa back to Ethiopia, as the situation worsens and Washington struggles to reinforce a ceasefire.
Special envoy Mike Hammer will return to the region for the second time in a month “as part of ongoing US diplomatic efforts to achieve an immediate cessation of hostilities in northern Ethiopia and support the launch of African Union-led peace talks”, the State Department said.
M Hammer's two-week trip began in Kenya on Monday and he will continue to South Africa and Ethiopia from there.
He will meet Kenyan and African Union officials, with both the country and the pan-African body involved in mediation efforts in Ethiopia.
He will then head to Pretoria to follow up on talks held in Washington last week during the US-South Africa Working Group on African and Global Issues.
In Addis Ababa, the US envoy will meet Ethiopian officials, as well as UN representatives and others delivering humanitarian assistance to the region, the Biden administration said.
His trip comes after a ceasefire between the Ethiopian government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) collapsed last August.
Forces from neighbouring Eritrea and allied regional militias continue to fight alongside the Ethiopian army against the TPLF.
Satellite images captured by Maxar Technologies last week show a build-up of Ethiopian and Eritrean forces along the border and near the Tigray region.
The renewal of hostilities is exacerbating an already dire situation, the UN has said, with the World Food Programme estimating that 13 million people need food aid across northern Ethiopia.
“The situation on the ground now is as bad as it has ever been, perhaps even worse,” said Cameron Hudson, a senior fellow at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.
“We are hearing reports of hundreds of thousands of troops being mobilised and tens of thousands of battlefield deaths on both sides.
"That's in addition to the dire humanitarian situation in Tigray that has 90 per cent of the population listed as food insecure.”
While Mr Hammer’s trip signals increasing engagement from Washington, the Biden administration has come under criticism over the inefficacy of its diplomacy and having no road map for peace.
“This trip gives the impression that Washington is working hard, but I question whether we [the US] are working smart,” Mr Hudson told The National.
The US approach for the past few months has been to offer backing for the AU process — which is now on life support.
“The stops in Kenya and South Africa [for Mr Hammer] both appear aimed at enlisting the support of powerful AU members states to help jump-start a process that has manifestly failed to end fighting or increase humanitarian access,” Mr Hudson said.
A former member of the George W Bush administration, he urged the Biden team to use its “diplomatic toolkit”, including punitive measures on the parties fuelling the war.
“There has been virtually no personal diplomatic involvement by [Secretary of State Antony] Blinken or the president in the last year,” Mr Hudson said.
Mr Hammer is the third envoy the Biden administration has named to the region, after the resignations of Jeffrey Feltman and David Satterfield this year.