(Adds quotes from House committee session, background)
Written by Daphne Psalidakis and Doinsula Oladipo
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A senior State Department official warned on Tuesday that Ethiopia and Eritrea should expect further action from the United States if declaring a cessation of hostilities does not lead to improvements in the Tigray region.
The former rulers of Ethiopia’s Tigray said on Monday that they were back in control of the regional capital, Mekele, after nearly eight months of fighting, and the government that ousted them announced a unilateral ceasefire with immediate effect.
The developments represented a dramatic turn in a conflict that has killed thousands of people, displaced more than two million and pushed hundreds of thousands to the brink of starvation.
Robert Godick, acting assistant secretary of state for the State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs, said Washington welcomes the Ethiopian government’s decision to announce a temporary end to hostilities, but cautioned that the United States will be watching closely to determine whether the ceasefire leads to changes on the ground.
“We will not stand idly by in the face of the atrocities in Tigray,” Godek told the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee.
He also urged the Eritrean government to comply immediately with the cessation of hostilities and called for a permanent, negotiated ceasefire in the region to which all parties would abide.
“Every effort must be made to make this ceasefire meaningful, including discussions with all parties to the conflict,” said Representative Karen Bass, who chairs the commission’s subcommittee on Africa.
If the disaster in Tigray is not mitigated, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Greg Meeks said, “we could see one of our closest and strongest allies in Africa head toward civil war and, ultimately, the collapse of the state.”
The fighting was punctuated by reports of mass rapes and mass killings of civilians. At least 12 aid workers were killed.
Last week, an Ethiopian army airstrike on a crowded market killed at least 64 people and wounded 180 others. Doctors said that among the dead and wounded were women and children, and that Ethiopian forces had prevented ambulances from reaching the scene for more than a day. The army said all the victims were fighters.
“The administration is in complete agreement that horrific atrocities have been committed in Tigray,” Godek said. But he said the final decision on whether to characterize the events as crimes against humanity or genocide has not been made and it is up to Secretary of State Anthony Blinken.
Representative Michael McCaul, the committee’s top Republican, said that in his assessment, acts of genocide have been committed against the Tigrayans, and called for targeted sanctions.
“Nearly a million people are starving and, according to the United Nations, systematic rape and sexual violence are rampant,” McCaul said. (Reporting by Daphne Psalidakis, Patricia Gingerley and Doinsula Oladipo; Editing by Jonathan Otis)
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