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U.S. Special Envoy for Horn of Africa says he questions Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s confidence in defeating TPLF fighters

Mr. Feltman expressed confidence that there might be a diplomatic breakthrough as the Ethiopian government and the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) begin to state their priorities for a resolution of the conflict.

The United States Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa Jeffrey Feltman briefed reporters in Washington DC on Tuesday morning to provide an update on the raging Ethiopian conflict.

Mr. Feltman expressed confidence that there might be a diplomatic breakthrough as the Ethiopian government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) begin to state their priorities for a resolution of the conflict.

He asserted, however, that diplomatic efforts are being outpaced by military operations on the ground, especially with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali’s recent pronouncements that he would be willing to go to the battlefront himself and fight, even as the TPLF continues to advance toward the capital Addis Ababa.

“I returned from Ethiopia yesterday, and this was my second trip there in just a couple of weeks.  And there is some nascent progress in trying to get the parties to move from a military confrontation to a negotiating process, but what concerns us is that this fragile progress risks being outpaced by the alarming developments on the ground that threaten Ethiopia’s overall stability and unit,” Feltman said.

He added, “I want to be clear:  The basis for talks to lead to de-escalation and a negotiated ceasefire exists.  Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy told me again on Sunday that his top priority is to get the Tigrayan Defense Forces and the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, the TDF and the TPLF, out of the lands that they have occupied in the states of Amhara and Afar and get them back into Tigray.  We share that objective.  The TDF and TPLF leaders that we have engaged tell us that their top priority is to break the de facto humanitarian siege that the Government of Ethiopia has imposed on Tigray since July.  We share that objective as well.  And the two sides have given the same message to a number of other diplomats and leaders, including former Nigerian President Obasanjo, who, as you all know, serves as the African Union’s high representative for the Horn of Africa. 

“The basic point is that these two objectives are not mutually exclusive.  With political will, one can achieve both.  Unfortunately, each side is trying to achieve its goal by military force, and each side seems to believe that it’s on the cusp of winning.  After more than a year of fighting and hundreds of thousands of casualties and people displaced by fighting, it should be clear that there is no military solution.  The government must remove the shackles that are hindering humanitarian relief and stop offensive military actions, and the TDF must halt its advance on Addis.  All those in need, regardless of ethnicity or geography, should have immediate access to lifesaving humanitarian assistance, and we call for an immediate end to human rights abuses and violations. 

“Our goal is to support diplomacy as the first, as the last, and as the only approach to address the underlying causes of this conflict.  We are not taking sides here.  Rumors that we are supporting one side are simply false.  We have no intention of any engagement except diplomatic engagement on behalf of international efforts to promote a political process.  Ethiopia’s neighbors, the African Union, the United Nations, and the international community all agree:  There is no time to waste in pivoting to diplomacy. 

“Ethiopian Americans, too, have an important responsibility to create a conducive atmosphere for de-escalation.  For decades, Ethiopian Americans have been instrumental in advocating for reforms that would ensure that all Ethiopians live in dignity with their basic human rights and freedoms respected.  Now is the time for Ethiopian Americans to play a similar leadership role in advocating for an end to incitement and fanning the flames of war.

“Continued war risks unraveling Africa’s second-most-populous country, the home of the African Union, and the traditional linchpin of security and stability in the strategic Horn of Africa/Red Sea area.  We’re putting our collective – we’re putting our diplomatic tools behind the collective efforts to promote de-escalation and a negotiated ceasefire.  It is time for the Ethiopians to pursue their objectives not on the battlefield, but at the negotiating table.

“And one final note is I want to reiterate that the Department of State has been urging U.S. citizens in Ethiopia to depart now using commercially available options.  The U.S. embassy has been issuing daily messages to U.S. citizens since early November with this message.”

Mr. Feltman said he questions the confidence of Abiy Ahmed that he would prevail militarily, saying that developments on the ground tend to suggest that it might be a long battle that would leave many people suffering and dead should diplomatic efforts fail.

“I just wanted to confirm that you met with Prime Minister Abiy, and did he give any indication in your meeting that he would put out this call that he would go to the front lines to direct the war effort from there?  Did you discourage him from taking this step?  And if this military campaign continues to outpace the diplomatic efforts, is the U.S. prepared to take more punitive actions, perhaps under the sanctions regime or another step?” CNN’s Jennifer Hansler asked Felman during the briefing. 

“Thanks, Jennifer.  I mean, what the prime minister and I mostly discussed was how his goals could be achieved through the negotiating table rather than on the military battlefield.  He has – he is confident that he will be able to push back the TDF northward back into Tigray.  I question that confidence.  I’m just looking at a map over the – of what’s happened since the Ethiopian National Defense Forces withdrew from Tigray at the end of June.  Just looking at a map makes me question his confidence,” Feltman responded.

The US special envoy said he was not fully optimistic that a diplomatic solution will work but said he was encouraged that both sides were talking to negotiators separately and outlining what their priorities are.

He once again called on US citizens in Ethiopia to leave the country now that commercial flights remain available, saying that there was no plans to send in the military for mass evacuations.

“We are urging and we have been urging U.S. citizens in Ethiopia to depart now.  As I said, there are commercially available options now.  And the U.S. embassy has been giving that message daily to U.S. citizens since early November. So it’s simply a reflection of the fact that the situation on the ground is changing, that the U.S. embassy would be unlikely to assist U.S. citizens in Ethiopia with departure if the commercial options would become unavailable.  And so now is the time for them to leave,” he said.

Feltman acknowledged that it will be politically costly for the Ethiopian government to sit down with TPLF right now when Afar and Amhara regions are under occupation, but asserted that both sides do not need to have direct talks for a diplomatic solution to be reached.

He said the fact that both sides have defined as their primary objectives for peace is encouraging.

He said it was his sense that both sides do not want to see the collapse of Ethiopia, which is what might happen should both sides opt for a full military confrontation.

On reports of U.S. citizens being detained in Ethiopia, Feltman said, “Whenever we have information on detained U.S. citizens, the embassy asks for consular access to them so that we can perform the consular services that are such an important part of our overseas diplomatic presence. There’s obviously a very large Ethiopian American community in Ethiopia as, of course there’s a large Ethiopian American community that has enriched the United States on this side of the Atlantic.”

Chief White House Correspondent for

Simon Ateba is Chief White House Correspondent for Today News Africa. Simon covers President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, the U.S. government, the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and other financial and international institutions in Washington D.C. and New York City.

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