The United States (US) Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday praised Ethiopia for its progress in implementing a peace deal to end the Tigray conflict but stopped short of ushering the country back into a US trade programme.
Visiting Ethiopia to repair relations that were strained by the two-year war in the country’s northern region, Blinken met with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and discussed ongoing efforts to solidify peace, restore basic services and address humanitarian needs.
The Ethiopian government and rebel forces from Tigray signed a ceasefire in November, ending a conflict that killed tens of thousands, left hundreds of thousands facing hunger and displaced millions.
US ‘okays’ Ethiopia
The US government restricted economic and security assistance to Ethiopia during the war and cut access to the US African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa), a duty-free trade programme that had been a boon for the country's textile sector.
"Certainly, we share the aspiration of Ethiopia returning to Agoa," Blinken told reporters after his meetings with Abiy and other government figures, adding that "Ethiopia was moving in the right direction" as it continued to implement the peace accord.
He said Ethiopia had been given clear benchmark and Washington would continue to work with the government in Addis to achieve its goals.
"Ethiopia and the US have agreed to strengthen their long-standing bilateral relations with a commitment to partnership," Abiy said on Twitter after the meeting.
The US State Department said Blinken on Wednesday also met with Ethiopia's National Security Advisor Redwan Hussein and spokesperson of the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) rebel forces, Getachew Reda.
The parties acknowledged the progress but agreed "much work remained to fully implement" the ceasefire agreement. The two sides also discussed the need for the establishment of a Tigray interim administration as key to maintaining positive momentum.
New aid to Ethiopia
During a visit to a UN logistics warehouse, Blinken announced a new $331 million humanitarian aid to Ethiopia, saying this would provide life-saving support for people affected by conflict, drought and food insecurity.
His visit is the latest in a series visit to Africa by senior Biden administration officials as Washington looks to reinforce ties with a continent where China's diplomatic and economic influence is ubiquitous.
Blinken on Thursday will head to the West African nation Niger, which has been confronting a growing Islamist insurgency.
Ethiopia denies allegations
The US candidly criticised alleged atrocities by Ethiopian forces and their allies from Eritrea as well as the Amhara region during the Tigray war.
Ethiopia, Africa's second most populous nation and a traditional US ally, accused Washington of meddling in its internal affairs and threatened to reassess the bilateral relationship.
It has denied the most serious allegations of human rights violations during the war.
“Blinken and Abiy discussed the importance of accountability for the atrocities perpetrated by all parties during the conflict, as well as the need for an inclusive and comprehensive process of transitional justice," US State Department spokesperson Ned Price said.
As well as mending ties with allies, Ethiopia is also looking to restructure its debt and secure an International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan, which the state’s finance minister said last year was being delayed in part by the Tigray war.
While the peace deal has allowed humanitarian aid to flow into Tigray, needs remain immense.
Eritrean troops remain
After the deal was signed, allegations of abuses especially sexual violence have persisted, although Blinken said human rights advocates told him during a meeting with them on Wednesday that there had been a significant drop.
"We strongly urge all parties to do everything possible to ensure that they cease entirely," Blinken said.
“Eritrean troops remain in several border areas while militia from the Amhara region, which neighbours Tigray, occupy large areas of territory in contested parts of Western and Southern Tigray,” humanitarian workers say.
Asked by reporters about the Eritrean troops, Blinken said they were departing but the process was not complete.
Eritrea's government spokesperson has not responded to requests for comment about the actions of Eritrean troops or any other aspect of its policies.
A spokesperson for the Amhara regional government said they were "always ready to co-operate with peace deal process and activities".