MR ICE: Thank you. Good afternoon, everyone, and thank you for joining us for this briefing on the situation in Ethiopia. I’m sure you’ve all seen Secretary’s Pompeo’s statements on the issue where the United States has clearly expressed our deep concern over the continued fighting and the situation in Ethiopia’s Tigray region.
Today, I am very happy to have with us Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Tibor Nagy and the U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia Michael Raynor, who both have extensive knowledge of Ethiopia and can share insights into the current situation, provide the U.S. perspective, and elaborate on the U.S. policy behind our current response. Assistant Secretary Nagy is going to begin with some opening remarks, and then we’re going to take a few questions.
Just as a reminder, this briefing is on the record but embargoed until the end of the call. Okay. If you would like to go ahead and get into our question queue, I invite you to dial 1-0 and that will put you into the queue. The operator will give us those same instructions before we go to the Q&A. With that, I am going to turn it over to Assistant Secretary Nagy. Sir.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY NAGY: Thanks so, so much, J.T., and thanks also for mentioning the Secretary’s statement. From the first attacks on November 3rd by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, TPLF, on Ethiopian National Defense Force bases in the Tigray region, we have publicly and privately highlighted our grave concern. We strongly urge an immediate de-escalation of tensions, a cessation of hostilities, and a return to peace. The protection and security of all civilians is essential. Our top priority is ensuring the welfare, protection, and security of U.S. citizens. The U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa continues to work closely with the United Nations and others to relocate U.S. citizens in Tigray, as conditions permit. We appreciate the UN’s support in this regard. The United States continues to coordinate with the Ethiopian Government, local authorities, and our international partners to ensure that civilians in and around the Tigray region have access to needed humanitarian assistance.
As of today, the fighting in Tigray continues, and events last weekend suggest that the TPLF seeks to internationalize the conflict. The TPLF leadership has admitted responsibility for the November 13 missile launches at airports in Bahir Dar and Gondar, in the Amhara region, and the November 14 attack in Eritrea. These unacceptable attacks make the situation more dangerous, and the Secretary condemned them in his most recent statement. We have been in contact with Eritrean Government officials and are urging their continued restraint.
In Addis Ababa, Washington, across the region, and internationally, we are working with partners toward a quick end to the conflict. We’ve also been in close communication with representatives of the Ethiopian diaspora regarding the situation in Tigray. We continue to press the Ethiopian Government to restore communication in the region as an act of accountability and transparency and to enable greater contact with civilians, including American citizens in the region. We also urge both sides to maintain access for humanitarian organizations to provide essential assistance to vulnerable groups in the region. We have been unequivocal with the Ethiopian Government and the TPLF that civilian lives must be protected and humanitarian access must be ensured.
We remain deeply concerned over reports that civilians have been purposely targeted and attacked. We condemn the November 12 massacre in Mai-Kadra, apparently perpetrated by TPLF soldiers and militia as they retreated from the town. We urge independent investigations of all reports of atrocities and attacks against civilians. Those found responsible must be held accountable in accordance with the law. Additionally, we are working with the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission and the Ethiopian Government to ascertain why several journalists were recently arrested, their current status and well-being, and what charges they are facing.
We are also closely tracking the outflow of civilians to neighboring countries and are in close contact with UN and other humanitarian officials regarding contingency plans on their response. We urge neighboring countries to keep their borders open to asylum seekers fleeing the violence.
We welcome the generosity demonstrated by the people of Sudan in hosting Ethiopian refugees. The United States has been one of the largest contributors to humanitarian assistance to the region, providing more than $320 million in FY2020 to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the UNHCR; the World Food Program; UN Children’s Fund, UNICEF; the International Organization for Migration, IOM; and other humanitarian organization partners to provide protection and assistance for refugees, internally displaced persons, and conflict victims in Sudan. U.S. humanitarian assistance provides refugees and IDPs in Sudan with shelter, food, and access to clean water and sanitation, health care, and other lifesaving support. Some of this assistance is already being deployed by our partners to respond to the urgent needs of newly arrived Ethiopian asylum seekers.
Before I turn over to questions, I do want to mention one personal note. As some of you know, this situation absolutely breaks my heart. I had several tours in Ethiopia, including ambassador during the Ethio-Eritrean War. Just like Ambassador Raynor, I know the region very well. We have the highest regard, admiration for the people of Ethiopia and especially for the Tigrayans who suffered the most during that war.
So with that, we welcome your questions.
MR ICE: Thank you, Assistant Secretary Nagy. Just as a reminder, to get into the question queue I invite you to dial 1-0. And at this point, let’s go to the line of Will Mauldin at The Wall Street Journal.
QUESTION: Thank you so much for having this call. I was wondering if you could just help maybe set this into context in the region what surrounding countries such as Sudan, Somalia, Djibouti, Eritrea have at stake or have been involved – how they’ve been involved in the conflict for some of us who don’t know the region as well, and how they’ve been involved in the relief efforts. Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY NAGY: Sure. That’s a great question and thank you. Ethiopia, most especially since Prime Minister Abiy has taken power, is the linchpin in the region, of course, with over a hundred million people and a 2,000-year-old history as a state – the only country in Sub-Saharan Africa that was never colonized. It is a key strategic partner for the United States. It’s a land that’s also the largest landlocked country on earth, Djibouti critically important because the Port of Djibouti is the main source for all overland transport to Ethiopia.
Ethiopians have been very much involved in trying to re-establish the state in Somalia by contributing both to AMISOM, the peacekeeping operation, but also providing some additional troops, because Ethiopia itself has a large region which is inhabited by ethnic Somalis. The other borders – South Sudan, Sudan – Sudan and Ethiopia, of course, have a long, long history of their relations, and the Sudanese have provided refuge for Ethiopians fleeing a whole series of conflicts in Ethiopia going back to the time of the emperor.
And then, of course, the other border is Eritrea. As you know, Ethiopia and Eritrea fought a bitter, bitter war, 1998 to 2000. Now with Prime Minister Abiy, relations have been normalized. And one of the goals coming out of this is the United States very much wants Ethiopia to be able to continue playing a positive role in the region, exporting stability, and hopefully at some point in the not-too-distant future prosperity as well, as one of the prime minister’s goals is to transform Ethiopia from a state-led economy to an open market economy. Over.
MR ICE: Hey, Mike, do you have anything to add to that?
AMBASSADOR RAYNOR: Just maybe a couple of minor points. Nothing to – nothing to detract from what you said. Certainly, our embassies in the region are engaging with their host countries, coordinating perceptions, talking about possible approaches towards solutions. And as Tibor mentioned that Ethiopia is basically a net exporter of security to the broader region, and so there have been expressions of concerns by neighboring countries about what the current dynamics might mean for their stability as well.
And in terms of the Sudan generosity in hosting refugees, just to note that already that’s over 35,000 refugees at a rate that had been between 4- and 5,000 a day. That seems to have gone down a bit over the last day or so to about 1,500 a day. So we don’t know that that suggests any trend. But certainly, we’re gauging that the countries in the region are looking very hard at having to play a constructive role in fostering peace and a quick end to the conflict. Over.
MR ICE: Okay. Let’s go to the line of Shaun Tandon, AFP.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) a little bit of Will’s question. Have you seen any evidence of foreign military involvement in this conflict, whether in terms of troops, obviously, or in terms of military equipment?
And if I could follow up on something that Tibor said at the beginning. You mentioned being in touch with Eritrean officials. What do you see, if anything, coming out of this diplomatically? I mean, could this be part of a greater reconciliation between the United States and Eritrea? Do you see that as a possibility or are there still major obstacles to improving the relationship with Eritrea? Thanks.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY NAGY: Yeah, thanks. When I visited Eritrea a little over a year ago, I mentioned at the time that from the United States point of view, we would be delighted to have the same type of positive relations with Eritrea that we have with Ethiopia.
As far as internationalizing the conflict goes, that is one absolute danger that we are doing our best, and I think the entire region is doing its best, to avoid. As I mentioned, we expressed our thanks to Eritrea for not being provoked when they were attacked by missiles because apparently, one of the aims of the TPLF hardcore leadership was to try to internationalize the conflict so that they could – that that would be a way to try to really fan the flames of patriotism within the general population of Tigray, and we appreciate the fact that Eritrea has been restrained.
Obviously, the Ethiopian Government is also very keen to keep the situation from being internationalized because that would be destabilizing to the entire region, which, as you guys note, historically has been one of the most unstable regions in Africa, if not the world.
MODERATOR: Okay. Let’s go to the line of Carol Morello at The Washington Post. Carol.
QUESTION: You mentioned – Tibor, you mentioned you’ve seen there have been atrocities committed. Have you seen any evidence that genocide has happened in Tigray? And is there any hope at this stage of mediation, or is Prime Minister Abiy going to fight on until he has full control of Tigray?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY NAGY: Well, because of the lack of communications, the reports – we have heard the sporadic reports of incidents, which some of the human rights organizations have characterized could be labeled as war crimes, but that’s why one of the things we very much want is an independent investigation, which will be very important when the means are available for that.
What was the second part of your question?
MR ICE: Operator, Carol will have to get back into the queue. Would you open up her line again, please?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY NAGY: Yeah, she had a second question.
AMBASSADOR RAYNOR: This is Mike. I think – sorry.
QUESTION: Is there any hope of mediation at this stage —
ASSISTANT SECRETARY NAGY: Oh, yeah, but – yeah, excellent.
QUESTION: — or is Prime Minister Abiy going to fight on until he has full control?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY NAGY: Yeah, excellent, okay, that’s very important. And we get that question immediately: “What about mediation?” “Why don’t you hop on an airplane, get over there?”
Mediation, I think it’s very important to underscore – it’s a tactic, it’s a way to get to the goal. It’s not a goal in itself. I mean, our goal is a quick end to the conflict, restoration of peace, protection of civilians. At a point where mediation will become useful, i.e. that the two parties indicate an interest in mediation, you can bet that the United States would be there in an instant. A whole series of regional leaders, continental leaders, other international leaders have reached out with offers of mediation. At this point, neither party, from everything we hear, is interested in mediation.
However, having said that, I think it’s also very important to keep in mind that on the one hand, everybody focuses on the military campaign. But alongside the military campaign, there are indications that there’s very much a political campaign going on within Ethiopia, because you talk about Tigrayans; Tigrayans are not the enemy, and the Ethiopian Government acknowledges this very strongly that Tigrayans are one of the many ethnic groups in Ethiopia. And even the TPLF – you talk about the TPLF; it is a – it’s a large, large party. You have hundreds of thousands of members.
The – from my conversations, the Ethiopian Government is in very strong opposition during this campaign to some of the leadership of the TPLF, and Ambassador Raynor can add additional details, but I understand that the Ethiopian Government has already appointed an interim administration to start administering those parts of Tigray which are being returned to state authority from the TPLF regime. Mike, is that correct?
AMBASSADOR RAYNOR: That’s correct.
MR ICE: Very well. Let’s go to Simon Ateba at Today News Africa.
QUESTION: Simon Ateba from Today News Africa in Washington, D.C. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has jailed most of his political opponents. He has used the excuse of COVID-19 to postpone the election. On Thursday, Abiy accused the director-general of the World Health Organization, Dr. Tedros, of seeking to procure weapons for the TPLF, and right now his army continues to bomb civilians in Tigray. Have you seen any evidence that the WHO chief is trying to procure weapons for the TPLF? And what else can the U.S. Government do to end the ongoing war and also to protect civilians? And do you think that the U.S. Government has not done enough to check Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed? The humanitarian organizations say that almost 7,000 people are in jail right now, and he refuses to release them because they oppose him politically. Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY NAGY: Thanks very much. The U.S. Government is doing everything possible to end the conflict, to return to peace, to urge for the protection of civilians. We’ve called for restoring communications. It’s not the United States Government that has to stop the fighting. It’s the two sides that are going to have to stop the fighting.
Regarding any allegations about charges made, you have to go to the sources for those charges because those are not coming from the United States Government. But as I said, we have engaged with all sides in Ethiopia. We have engaged in the region. We have spoken and we continue to speak. We are looking for opportunities wherever those opportunities come up to promote a return to peace.
So when it comes to stopping the fighting, as I have to say, it’s the people engaged in the fighting that have to stop the fighting. Over, thank you.
MR ICE: Let’s go to the line of Conor Finnegan at ABC News.
QUESTION: Thank you for doing this. Just following up on Carol’s question, and maybe the idea of more that the U.S. Government could do to push those two sides so that you don’t need mediation, can you speak at all to the Secretary’s involvement? Has he been in touch with Prime Minister Abiy? And would more higher-level pressure from the U.S. help here? And just to be clear, when you say you’ve been in touch with all sides, have you had contact with the TPLF yourself? Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY NAGY: First of all, I have not, but Ambassador Raynor has. As far as the Secretary’s involvement, the Secretary right now is on travel, and we are obviously discussing on what more higher-level U.S. engagement we can propose as events unfold. Anybody who has worked with these two sides I think can appreciate the fact that they have very, very strong opinions on what they want to do and when they want to do it. As I said before, to us, mediation is not the goal. Resumption of peace is the goal. Mediation, in fact, is a very good tactic, but it can only be used when the people involved or the sides involved are prepared for mediation. Over.
AMBASSADOR RAYNOR: Tibor, maybe I could just add a little bit to that, first to note that over the past week, though I certainly don’t put my stature up with the Secretary, over the past week I have spoken with Prime Minister Abiy and with TPLF Chairman Debretsion. And of course, the central and, again, and the first point I made was the importance of military de-escalation and cessation of fighting. And of course, I explored with both of them the extent to which mediation or dialogue or negotiation might be a tool toward that end. And I will tell you that at the time of my conversations there was no receptivity to that approach. There was a strong commitment on both sides to see the military conflict through. And in fact, neither side felt they could articulate a basis for a negotiated or a mediated solution at that time.
That said, we continue to be very closely attuned to developments on the ground and to opportunities they might create, to press additionally and then perhaps in different ways toward that possibility. As Tibor noted, that’s not the end. That’s a potential tool toward an end, and we remain attuned to that and then to raise that however we think constructive. Over.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY NAGY: Thanks, Mike.
MR ICE: Let’s go to Anna Kara of Associated Press.
OPERATOR: One moment, please.
QUESTION: Can you hear me okay?
OPERATOR: Your line is open, go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you. Even if there’s no appetite for dialogue from either side, aren’t there other efforts toward a humanitarian ceasefire or a humanitarian corridor underway, and what progress are they making? And also, what is your best guess of the number of combatants killed and civilians killed? Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY NAGY: Okay. On the last part there, unfortunately, because of a lack of communications, as far as casualty figures are concerned, I don’t want to give you bad numbers. I would suggest, if you want to get an exact count, ask directly of the Ethiopians, because they’re the ones that have the exact number.
Mike, you want to talk about the humanitarian corridor aspect? Because that’s very, very important.
AMBASSADOR RAYNOR: It is indeed, and it’s an aspect that we, along with other humanitarian governments, including the United Nations, have been pressing from the outside: establishing humanitarian access for commodities – fuel, gas, other items; establishing a (inaudible) corridor to enable the insertion of those supplies but also to facilitate and monitor civilians. That – we raised that with the government. They said they would look at that. When I raised that with the TPLF, they did not really engage on that possibility. But we continue to press it very hard.
Another aspect of this is the Ethiopian Government continues to articulate a vision of the military conflict coming to an end fairly soon, a week or two from now, which isn’t to say that (inaudible) there isn’t a humanitarian crisis on the ground, because there absolutely is. And we continue to press very hard in concert with the donor community, the international community, the United Nations, to get access immediately to the region and to establish safe egress from the region. Over.
MR ICE: Now let’s go to the line of Michel Ghandour at Middle East Broadcast Network. Over.
QUESTION: Thank you for doing this. A follow-up question on the Ethiopian chief of staff saying that WHO Director Tedros used his position to lobby foreign governments to support the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. Do you have anything on that?
And on Sudan, any comment on the news saying that Russia will build a naval base there?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY NAGY: Okay. First of all, on the whole WHO issue, you have to go to the Ethiopians for that. That is coming straight from Ethiopia, so we absolutely have no comment.
And as far as anything having to do with Sudan, we meant for this briefing to be talking about the current situation in Ethiopia and Tigray, so we’ll leave it at that.
MR ICE: Very well. Let’s go to Lara Jakes at the New York Times.
QUESTION: Thanks. Based on what you just said, I feel a little sheepish asking this, but I did want to talk about Sudan and the knock-on effects that the refugee influx has had on a very tenuous time for the transitional government. So I’m wondering if you can tell us a little more and with some specificity what level of (inaudible) support is being given to help Sudan (inaudible) the refugee influx. And also, to what extent you think that this could future disrupt the transitional government there? Thanks.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY NAGY: Okay. Very quickly, I don’t believe that this is going to disrupt the very successful transition which is going on in Sudan. I mean, my gosh, Sudan’s the good news story of the year. And again, on the refugee flow, we’re – USAID, U.S. Agency for International Development, is very much involved in there, in that, as are a number of other partners, looking at what we can do, how we can move quickly. The Sudanese Government also is obviously cooperating very closely.
And it’s a sad truth, but unfortunately Sudan has had to go through with this a number of times. Again, I mean, I give the highest credit to the Government of Sudan. And this has been through a number of their various regimes. Immaterial of what the regimes in Sudan were or what the regimes in Ethiopia were, whenever there were these humanitarian emergencies, the Sudanese have provided just an incredibly welcoming and supportive refuge for the refugees coming out of Ethiopia. Whether they were escaping the emperor or the Marxist Derg or the TPLF government or now, it just a very long history of genuine cordiality and welcome from the people of Sudan for the people of Ethiopia. Over.
MR ICE: Let’s go to the line of Katharine Houreld, Reuters.
OPERATOR: Ms. Houreld’s line has dropped.
MR ICE: Very well. Let’s go to Conor Finnegan at ABC News again.
QUESTION: Thank you for indulging me. Just to follow up on something Ambassador Raynor said about the government signaling this could end shortly, do you expect that fighting in Ethiopia ends with that? Or do you fear that Prime Minister Abiy will push to consolidate elsewhere, in other regions?
And then secondly, the TPLF chairman told the Financial Times at some point this week that a breakup of Ethiopia could be one of the consequences of this. Can you speak to fears of that? Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY NAGY: Okay. I obviously can’t make any comments on any possible boycott of Ethiopia. I mean, you can imagine that the Ethiopian – the global diaspora is – probably has some very, very divergent views. All you have to do is look at some of the comments that we get on our Twitters.
As far as the fighting leading to other ethnic conflict, you have to say – okay, I’m not privy to the thinking of the TPLF leadership when they started this, but this was not to secede and create an independent state from Ethiopia, because the Ethiopian constitution has a provision for the states to be able to secede peacefully. I mean, again, difficult to tell motivation, but it seems like they were doing this more to depose the prime minister from power and to reassert themselves into the prominent position that they had atop the Ethiopian political spectrum for the last 27 years.
So hopefully right now I think that their tactic has had the opposite effect from what they were planning. And Mike can confirm this, but it seems like this has brought the Ethiopian nation together, at least for the time being, in support of the prime minister, because this has really stoked Ethiopian nationalism, and hopefully that that – those positive forces will remain.
But again, I want to make it very clear that this is not about Tigray. There is no equivalency here. This is not two sovereign states fighting against each other. This is a faction of the government running a region in Ethiopia that has decided to undertake hostilities against the central government, and it has not – in my view – has had the effect that they thought that they were going to get. And Mike, I’ll turn it over to you for the last word, my friend.
AMBASSADOR RAYNOR: Very, very little to add to that. We – again, it comes back to why we’ve been impressing the importance of having de-escalation and cessation of hostilities – not because we necessarily think there’s a risk of expanded (inaudible) engagement beyond the region, but simply because the longer fighting persists, the more risk there is of destabilization of one kind or another.
We, as Tibor said, note that the rest of the country actually remains quite calm at present, no indications of anyone taking up comparable actions elsewhere, and in fact the opposite. Seemingly both regional governments, federal governments, and large swaths of the people galvanizing around the government – the federal government and the national (inaudible). Over.
MR ICE: Okay, I believe we have time for one or two more questions, maybe just one. Operator, I see Katharine Houreld is in the queue. Can we make her connection? Reuters.
OPERATOR: Your line is open.
QUESTION: Hello, can you hear me?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY NAGY: Yep.
QUESTION: Hi there. I just wanted to ask: We’ve received several reports from the rebels about airstrikes in Mekelle, including one that’s just come in saying that there was an airstrike on the university in the center of town. Is the U.S. able to verify any of this through satellite imagery or anything like this? And if you did, would there be any kind of statement on that?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY NAGY: I – again, from my point of view, communications in the region have been cut. We’re getting very little information, aside from anecdotal evidence. So I wish I could give you more information, I just cannot. From what you say, I certainly hope it’s not true about the University of Mekelle. I actually have a honorary doctorate from the University of Mekelle, so again, obvious that that would be tragic, but my information is extremely limited on that. Mike, I’ll turn it over to you in case you can be a little – you have more information. Over.
AMBASSADOR RAYNOR: Thank you. No specific information on specific reports of individual airstrikes. What we will – what we – what I guess I will add is that while fighting persists, we are pressing very hard, both sides, to maximize protections for civilians. From the government, we are getting strong reassurances that they are planning their military campaign around civilians. They’ve told us that they have passed up TPLF targets that they felt would have put civilians at risk. We are pressing at every opportunity, and every time there’s a report that we can engage on, we’re trying to get the details and using those as opportunities to reinforce our messaging about the importance of civilian safety. Over.
MR ICE: Okay. And for our last question, let’s go to Robbie Gramer at Foreign Policy.
QUESTION: Can you hear me?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY NAGY: Robbie? Yeah, sure can.
QUESTION: Great, thanks. I know Carol had asked about genocide before, and I understand that you’re calling for an independent investigation. But already even without one, the UN’s acting special advisor for genocide prevention issued a rare statement expressing concern at these developments – the reported massacre of civilians and how they heighten the risk of genocide. So just to put a finer point on it, do you share this concern, and do you believe what we are seeing in Ethiopia can be considered early warning signs of ethnic cleansing? Thanks.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY NAGY: I cannot honestly say yes to that. We are very concerned with every single example, incident of any of the alleged atrocities. That’s why we want to get an absolute clear handle on them. And that’s why we call for an independent investigation, not an investigation by either side, and then absolutely hold people accountable who committed these acts.
The ethnic dimension is one that everybody is very concerned about. In my own conversations with Ethiopian officials, they are just as concerned, obviously, as people outside the country. We have followed closely the ethnic fractures which have erupted over the last several years as the lid of the previous dictatorship has been loosened over the country and there have been more personal freedoms. And that is absolutely a huge challenge for Prime Minister Abiy and the Ethiopian Government, not just now but definitely going forward. So we obviously are going to monitor this very, very closely, as will our embassy, and report on all incidents, which we take extremely seriously. Over.
MR ICE: Okay. Well, we are over our time at this point. We actually took a couple more questions than we were originally scheduled to take, so appreciate that very much. We appreciate everyone dialing in today. I’d also like to thank Assistant Secretary Nagy and Ambassador Raynor for their time. With that, we’re closing the briefing and the embargo is now lifted. Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY NAGY: Thanks, J.T., and thanks, Mike.