The United States imposed sanctions on Monday on Eritrea’s army chief over human rights abuses in Ethiopia’s war-scarred Tigray region.
The move by the US Treasury Department against General Filipos Woldeyohannes, chief of staff of the Eritrean Defense Forces (EDF), comes amid reports Eritrea has deployed reinforcements to parts of Tigray as fighting escalates.
Forces under Filipos’ command are responsible for “massacres, looting, and sexual assaults,” the Treasury Department said in a statement.
EDF troops have raped, tortured, and executed civilians; they have also destroyed property and ransacked businesses,” it said.
“The EDF 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.”
Eritrea angrily rejected what it called “utterly baseless allegations and blackmail.”
“This is not, indeed, the first time for the US Administration to float such baseless smear campaigns against Eritrea,” the foreign ministry said. “In the circumstances, Eritrea calls on the US Administration to bring the case to an independent adjudication if it indeed has facts to prove its false allegations.”
The Treasury Department said any property or interests of Filipos in the United States would be frozen and US citizens are barred from conducting any business with him.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken issued a statement saying the United States “condemns in the strongest terms human rights violations and abuses in Ethiopia, including those involving the killings, forced removals, and systemic sexual violence.”
Blinken called on the Eritrean government to “withdraw its military forces immediately and permanently from Ethiopia.”
“At the same time, the United States continues to urge all parties to the conflict, including the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), to end abuses against civilians, take steps to de-escalate the conflict, allow for unimpeded humanitarian access, and commit to a negotiated ceasefire,” he said.
– Eritrean reinforcements –
Blinken expressed concern that large numbers of EDF have re-entered Ethiopia after withdrawing in June.
He called on the UN Security Council and members of the international community to “come together to push for a peaceful resolution of this ongoing conflict.”
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent troops into Tigray last November to topple the regional ruling party, the TPLF.
The 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner said the move came in response to TPLF attacks on federal army camps.
For months, the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments denied Eritreans were involved in the fighting, contradicting testimony from residents, rights groups, aid workers, diplomats and even some Ethiopian civilian and military officials.
Abiy finally acknowledged the Eritreans’ presence in March while speaking to lawmakers, and vowed soon after that they would leave.
Eritrea itself vowed to pull out of the region in April, but that never fully happened.
The war took a stunning turn in June after pro-TPLF forces — which were driven out of Tigray’s cities and towns last November — retook the regional capital Mekele.
The TPLF then launched an offensive into neighbouring Amhara and Afar regions and vowed to reclaim western and southern Tigray, which were occupied by Amhara forces in the war’s early stages.
– Famine-like conditions –
An internal European Union document dated August 20 and seen by AFP said Eritrean troops were “present in Western Tigray, where they have taken up defensive positions with tanks and artillery around Adi Goshu and Humera, and possibly also along the border with Sudan.”
The document also cited reports that Eritrea had sent reinforcements to western Tigray in the past days while continuing to occupy a strip of territory in northern Tigray.
The conflict in northern Ethiopia has killed thousands and pushed hundreds of thousands of people into famine-like conditions, according to the UN.
Tigray’s pre-war government voiced alarm Monday about the plight of refugees in the region, saying only 10 percent of Internally Displaced Persons in Shire, Adwa, Mekelle, Aksum and Adigrat had access to healthcare or water.
The situation is exacerbated by the ongoing rainy season and the potential spread of cholera and other diseases.
US aid chief Samantha Power last week accused Ethiopia of blocking humanitarian access to the region, a claim Abiy’s spokeswoman denied.
The Treasury Department statement on Monday echoed Power’s allegation while citing a call this month from Abiy for all capable Ethiopians to mobilise in support of the war effort including by joining the armed forces.
“These escalatory actions risk furthering a severe humanitarian crisis,” it said.