After secret US negotiations fail, a potential war in Africa escalates rapidly

NAIROBI, Kenya – As fighting flared up in northern Ethiopia last month, breaking a five-month armistice and rekindling a destructive civil war, a small US military plane was carrying diplomats. America’s seniors have crossed the front lines on a secret mission to stop the bloodshed.

Flying low and taking steps to avoid detection, the jet made its way to Tigray, a besieged northern region once at war with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s Ethiopian government, before continuing on to Djibouti to join an intense round of peace talks, according to people familiar with the matter. with negotiations. To gauge the distrust between the two sides, Mike Hammer, the US special envoy to the region, flew aboard the US Air Force plane as a reassurance that it would not be shot down.

Tigray is the world’s unprecedented war, a bitter conflict hidden behind a punitive government siege that has cut off communications in the region, locked out reporters and left 5.2 million people in need of aid. emergency food assistance. United Nations investigators have called it a war crime.

But in recent weeks the fighting has grown to its most intense – and clandestine efforts for peace have given way to ferocious fighting that many fear could quickly spread across the Horn of Europe. Africa, destabilizing the region.

While the world view has largely focused on the war in Ukraine, the conflict in Tigray is also huge, with three major armed forces, including Africa’s two largest armies, Ethiopia and Eritrea, fighting fought on multiple fronts over a rugged area twice. Swiss size.

The latest skirmishes, which include high-altitude battles, drone attacks and artillery attacks, have reached neighboring countries and involved hundreds of thousands of people. warrior, by most estimates. At least one hundred civilians have died and about 500,000 have been displaced from their homes in recent weeks, a senior UN official said.

A diplomatic motive to end the war was also concealed. A formal peace process led by the African Union has been plagued by disputes over mediators and money for most of the past year, officials say, prompting Western officials to try to do it. ball. Since March, the United States has held three secret meetings outside Ethiopia – in Djibouti and in the Seychelles – bringing together warring leaders for the first time since war broke out in November 2020.

Details of the latest meeting on September 9, attended by Mr. Abiy’s national security adviser, Redwan Hussien, and his attorney general, Gedion Timothewos, were provided by officials. Western officials and Tigrayan, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the events, the Americans insisted should be kept secret.

A US official confirmed that a US Air Force Beechcraft aircraft operated the flight over Tigray on behalf of the State Department.

Now, hopes for peace have been put to rest with a surprise announcement this week by the African Union, inviting both sides to negotiate in South Africa.

But the outlook for that initiative is uncertain. Tigrayan leaders have accused the mediator, former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, of siding with Mr. Abiy. After initially scheduling talks for this weekend, the African Union only said on Thursday that they would take place “soon”.

Events on the battlefield can go faster than that.

It is difficult to obtain reliable information about the past six weeks of fighting. But interviews with Western and Tigrayan officials – as well as video tapes, satellite images and eyewitness accounts obtained over several active phone lines in the region – have provided a flawed view of a metastatic conflict that is taking its toll on civilians.

Ethiopian drone strikes hit a kindergarten in August, killing several children and a United Nations food truck in late September. An air strike on Thursday. Three in Adi Da’ero, near the border with Eritrea, hit a center for refugees, killing at least 50 people, two humanitarian officials in the area said, speaking on condition of anonymity for their safety. surname.

Following an earlier strike into the same town, the video shows the lifeless body of a woman being pulled from the smoking rubble.

General Tsadkan Gebretensae, a former Ethiopian army commander and now Tigrayans strategist, said in a phone interview: “The fighting was intense and the casualties were huge.

Abiy spokesman and spokesman for the Ethiopian government and military did not respond to requests for comment. The government has denied it attacked civilian targets.

What we consider before using anonymous sources. Do the sources know the information? What is their motivation to tell us? Have they proven reliable in the past? Can we verify the information? Even if these questions are satisfied, The Times still uses anonymous sources as a last resort. Reporters and at least one editor know the source’s identity.

The most striking change in recent weeks has been the return to war by Isaias Afwerki, the authoritarian leader of the nation to the north, Eritrea, and his army, one of the largest in the country. Africa, accused of many atrocities in previous skirmishes.

The Eritrean army attacked Tigray with artillery vehicles from across the border and captured the Tigrayan town of Shiraro, where recent satellite photos show hundreds of soldiers marching and volleys of artillery rifles. In an unusual move, thousands of Ethiopian troops were flown to Eritrea to support the attack, officials said.

Inside Eritrea, the country has “mobilized all of its armed forces,” calling for all men under 55 to serve in the military, said Annette Weber, the European Union’s special envoy to the Horn of Africa. , wrote to EU member states last month in a confidential meeting. obtained by The New York Times.

“The war was fierce with a high military buildup in all areas,” Weber wrote in a leaked press conference, which first appeared on the website of the World Peace Organization, a program at Tufts University. both sides, intensity and involvement of the Eritreans.

“Tens of thousands of people were wounded or killed on various fronts, many believing that surrender was no choice,” the press conference continued. “The majority are under threat.”

The stakes for civilians in northern Ethiopia were raised in a September 22 report by United Nations investigators accusing both sides of committing war crimes, including massacres and atrocities. sexual assault. But it points to Mr Abiy’s forces for “using famine as a method of war” and for “sexually enslaving” Tigrayan women held in military camps.

At Tigray’s largest hospital, doctors say patients are dying of cancer, kidney disease and treatable conditions because they want the medicine. A recent study found that infants in Tigray are dying at four times the rate before the war.

Dr. Fasika Amdeslaise, a surgeon in Tigray with rare Internet access, “One day we will no longer fear being bombed from the air. wrote on Twitter. “One day, we’ll be able to treat our patients.”

The skirmish was the latest twist in a war in which the fortunes of both sides fluctuated wildly.

Just a year ago, Tigrayan fighters marched across the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa after driving government forces out of Tigray. But in November they were forced to withdraw after Mr. Abiy obtained armed drones from Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and China.

Two US officials said the US changed its mind in January when President Biden made his first phone call to Mr Abiy, allaying the Ethiopian leader’s concerns that the US was intent on trying to overthrow him and create precondition for secret negotiations.

Two months later, on March 10, a US Army Beechcraft aircraft carrying Tigrayan General Tsadkan arrived in the Seychelles, where he met in a hotel with Marshal Birhanu Jula, the head of the Ethiopian army.

The two men signed a humanitarian agreement that, a few weeks later, allowed the aid convoys to return to Tigray. A second American-brokered meeting took place in Djibouti in June.

However, the truce also presents an opportunity for both sides to rearm, and as the summer rolls around Mr. Abiy appears to be dragging his feet, officials said. His delegates at the negotiations lacked the authority to make decisions and he was reluctant to restore essential services like electricity and banking to Tigray.

The turn of the war on August 24 has led to criticism from experts, who say the Biden administration has failed to exert enough pressure to force the warring groups to hold talks. substantive peace.

“Foreign policy is clearly not working,” said Cameron Hudson, a former State Department official now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “There were a lot of efforts but they achieved nothing. So we have to question whether we are using the right tools.”

The reappearance of Isaias, the Eritrean leader, adds a volatile new element to the conflict. On September 20, Mr. Hammer, the US envoy, urged the Eritreans to return home from the fighting in Tigray.

Other countries in the region are also being drawn – as are the contingent of UN peacekeepers.

Ms. Weber said Sudan had become a “focal point” for arms flights to Tigray. In May, about 650 ethnic Tigrays, who were on UN peacekeeping mission in Sudan, defected from the Ethiopian Army and sought asylum, two UN officials in Sudan said because of the sensitive situation. cold. By August, officials said, about 400 of those peacekeepers had disappeared, mostly going to Tigray to fight alongside refugees recruited from camps along the border.

Mr. Hudson, the analyst, said it appeared Washington was hesitant to take tougher actions, such as implementing sanctions that Mr. Biden authorized in November, in hopes of Hope Ethiopia can once again become a strong partner of the US in the region.

But with Ethiopia straining to tipping point from the war in Tigray, as well as violent conflict in other regions such as Oromia, such a notion is “an illusion,” Hudson said.

“We’re not going back to those old days, and certainly not under Abiy,” he said.

Eric Schmitt reporting contributions from Washington, and Simon Marks from Nairobi, Kenya.


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