The Ethiopian government says there is no imminent threat to the capital despite claims from rebel forces.
The State Department is launching a new task force to oversee the departure of some U.S. Embassy personnel in Ethiopia and of U.S. citizens seeking to leave the country as its conflict rapidly escalates, with rebel groups claiming to be advancing toward the capital of Addis Ababa, current and former U.S. officials familiar with the matter told Foreign Policy.
The move underscores how concerned U.S. policymakers are that the country’s conflict between the central government and forces from the Tigray region in the north could threaten the capital, even as senior Ethiopian officials dismiss those concerns as sensationalized disinformation that play into the rebel groups’ propaganda.
The U.S. State Department’s decision to set up a task force for evacuation comes after the embassy authorized the voluntary departure of some U.S. Embassy staff and their family from the capital this week, and on Friday, it advised U.S. citizens to leave the country “as soon as possible.” The measures reflect growing concern in Washington over the stability of East Africa’s most populous country in the wake of its yearlong conflict against forces from Tigray.
The newly established task force, officials said, will help coordinate the voluntary departure of nonemergency government personnel and help facilitate commercial flights out of the country for U.S. citizens seeking to leave. One official, speaking on condition of anonymity, described the step as precautionary and said so far, they hadn’t seen a rush of U.S. citizens seeking to leave immediately.
A top Ethiopian government spokesperson dismissed the threat from rebel groups in Addis Ababa as “disinformation” during a virtual briefing on Friday.
“As far as a ‘siege’ is concerned on Addis, that is not true, and there is an alarmist narrative that is creating much tension among different communities, including the international community, that needs to be addressed,” said Billene Seyoum Woldeyes, spokesperson for Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.
On Tuesday, Ethiopia declared a state of national emergency and directed its citizens to begin preparing to defend Addis Ababa.
A State Department spokesperson confirmed to Foreign Policy the creation of the new task force to “oversee the Department’s planning, management, and logistics related to events in Ethiopia.”
The spokesperson declined to comment on how many U.S. citizens are estimated to be in Ethiopia currently, saying U.S. Embassies “compile rough estimates” on how many U.S. citizens are in their countries for contingency planning but does “not want to provide figures that cannot be considered authoritative.”
“The Department and the U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa are monitoring commercial flight availability closely and encourage U.S. citizens to have departure plans that do not involve the U.S. government,” the spokesperson said.
An authorized departure for embassy staff is voluntary and differs from an ordered departure where nonessential embassy staff are required to evacuate, which is used in more extreme circumstances, such as in the evacuation of the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan earlier this year.
U.S. President Joe Biden dispatched his special envoy for the Horn of Africa, Jeffrey Feltman, to Addis Ababa this week for discussions with the Ethiopian government on the conflict. The United States has called for an immediate cease-fire and urged the Ethiopian government to open humanitarian access to the Tigray region to help the civilian population avert famine.
“With the safety and security of millions in the balance, and more than 900,000 facing conflict-induced famine-like conditions, we prevail upon all forces to lay down their arms and open dialogue to maintain the unity and integrity of the Ethiopian state,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement on Thursday.
The U.S. government has slowly imposed a series of escalating reprisals on the Ethiopian government as the conflict continued and reports emerged of human rights violations and atrocities against civilians. Earlier this year, the United States imposed visa restrictions on some current and former Ethiopian officials. Biden accused Abiy’s government of “gross violations of internationally recognized human rights” and warned that Ethiopia will lose access to a joint U.S.-African trade program if warring parties don’t de-escalate the crisis. The United States has also accused Tigrayan forces of atrocities against civilians.
U.S. officials told Foreign Policy the administration is also weighing sanctions against certain Ethiopian officials implicated in atrocities in the conflict, though no such announcements have been made yet.
In a virtual briefing with reporters, Gedion Timothewos, Ethiopia’s attorney-general, portrayed the conflict as an existential fight for the country. “We are fighting for the right to determine our own destiny. The [Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF)] is deeply unpopular among [an] overwhelming majority of Ethiopians,” Timothewos said. “Ethiopians have had enough of the ethnic chauvinism, division, and cruelty of the TPLF. The sooner our friends in the West realize this and respect the democratic will, … the greater they will be positioned in terms of helping us overcome the serious challenges we are facing.”
The conflict sparked into conflagration a year ago after forces from the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, a party that governed the country under authoritarian rule for decades, attacked a federal military base. Abiy responded by launching a military offensive against the TPLF, using national forces, fighters from the Amhara region, and forces from the neighboring country of Eritrea. The TPLF recaptured most of Tigray from government forces in June and then invaded the neighboring Afar and Amhara regions the following month.
The conflict has been marked by reports of widespread atrocities and war crimes, including sexual violence, mass killings, and the starvation of civilians. A United Nations report released earlier this month after a joint investigation with the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission concluded all sides in the conflict committed abuses of extreme brutality. The Ethiopian government reportedly tried to limit the investigation’s scope, and human rights experts noted the investigators were blocked from visiting some of the locations most affected by conflict and violence. The Ethiopian government has dismissed these charges as unfounded.
Seyoum criticized the international response and media coverage of the conflict, saying it unfairly targeted Abiy’s democratically elected government in its fight against rebel groups guilty of atrocities themselves.
“Ill-informed policy decisions and media sensationalism are causing greater damage to Ethiopia than the efforts it is making to address the existential threat it faces by the congregation of terrorist groups within the country,” she said.
A rebel group allied with the TPLF, the Oromo Liberation Army, told Agence France-Presse this week that it expected the Ethiopian capital to fall within “months, if not weeks” following a rebel counteroffensive. In recent days, the TPLF has captured two cities in the Amhara region about 250 miles from the capital. But the government has denied the claims of the TPLF’s supposed success in its offensive.
Representatives of the Tigray forces and eight other groups announced an alliance against Abiy’s government in a press briefing in Washington on Friday, with the aim of unseating Abiy and starting a political transition by force if necessary.
Timothewos downplayed the significance of the newly announced alliance. “Some of those organizations are not really organizations that really function with any support on the ground, so it’s more of a publicity stunt from our point of view,” he said.