U.S. imposes sanctions on Eritrean military, individuals over conflict in Ethiopia

A damaged Eritrean military tank is seen near the town of Wikro, Ethiopia.

The United States on Friday imposed sanctions on the Eritrean military and other Eritrea-based individuals and entities, as Washington warned it was prepared to take action against other parties to the conflict in Ethiopia as it steps up pressure to try to bring an end to fighting.

The U.S. Treasury Department blacklisted Eritrea’s military, its ruling political party, the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ); the party’s economic adviser; and the head of the Eritrean national security office, accusing them of contributing to the conflict in neighboring Ethiopia.

War broke out in November 2020 between Ethiopian federal troops and forces loyal to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the ruling party of Tigray. Thousands have been killed in the conflict, which has since spread into two neighboring regions in northern Ethiopia.

“We condemn the continued role played by Eritrean actors who are contributing to the violence in northern Ethiopia, which has undermined the stability and integrity of the state and resulted in a humanitarian disaster,” Andrea Gacki, director of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Groups, said in a statement.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement that sanctions were not being imposed at this time on the Ethiopian government or the TPLF. But he added that “if the parties fail to make meaningful progress, the United States stands ready to pursue additional sanctions, including against the Government of Ethiopia and the TPLF.”

A senior State Department official said that Washington was prepared to impose fresh sanctions in a matter of days and weeks, not months.

“We can use them quite quickly,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We’ll see in the coming days how things unfold.”

The official said they were confident the leadership of the TPLF and the Ethiopian government would take the message of the kinds of individuals and entities Washington is prepared to sanction following Friday’s announcement, but declined to specify what fresh sanctions would target.

The warring parties have so far rejected calls from the United States, the United Nations and the African Union for a ceasefire. Both the government and the Tigrayan sides have set conditions that the other rejects.

U.S. Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa Jeffrey Feltman visited the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa this week to push for a ceasefire. He returned to Washington on Thursday to consult with Blinken, the State Department said.

As international pressure for a ceasefire and political settlement mounts, that message is being heard in Addis Ababa despite some of the public rhetoric, the official said.

The sanctions imposed on Friday targeted Eritrea over its role in the war. Washington has long condemned what it says are myriad human rights abuses by Eritrea, which rejects foreign governments’ criticism.

Early in the war, the Eritrean military sent in tanks and troops to aid its Ethiopian ally, Prime Minister Abiy. Eritrea has also used the conflict to settle old scores in Tigray.

Abiy’s government initially denied Eritrea had deployed forces, but later acknowledged they were there and in March said Eritrea was withdrawing its troops from Tigray. The Eritrean army continues to operate in northern Ethiopia, according to witnesses.

For the first five months of the conflict, Eritrea denied its forces were in Tigray. Eritrean soldiers have been repeatedly accused of mass killings of civilians, kidnapping refugees and gang-rapes on military bases, according to international rights groups such as Human Rights Watch. Eritrea has rejected these accusations.

Shortly after Eritrea gained independence in 1993 from Ethiopia after a decades-long struggle, the government led by President Isaias Afwerki began tightening its grip. Watchdogs call the country one of the world’s most repressive nations.

Also blacklisted on Friday was Hidri Trust, which the Treasury said is the holding company of all the Eritrean ruling party’s business enterprises, and the Red Sea Trading Corporation, which manages its property and financial interests.

In a response in 2011 to a report by the U.N. sanctions monitoring group, Eritrea asserted that the Hidri Trust was a holding company of all of the party’s business enterprises and that its primary purpose was to provide social safety nets to families of those killed during its independence war.

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