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Ethiopian government appears determined to target Tigray as humanitarian crisis deepens

The Biden administration this week sent its most senior official yet to Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. USAID Director Samantha Power is putting pressure on the Ethiopian government and its Nobel Peace Prize-winning prime minister to alleviate a humanitarian crisis in the country’s Tigray region. But as Nick Schifrin reports, the Ethiopian government seems determined to target Tigray

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    This week, the Biden administration is sending its most senior official yet to Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia.

    USAID Director Samantha Power is putting pressure on the Ethiopian government and its Nobel Peace Prize-winning prime minister to alleviate a humanitarian crisis in the country's Tigray region.

    But, as Nick Schifrin reports, the Ethiopian government seems determined to target Tigray.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In Addis Ababa, the army's newest recruits wrap themselves in the Ethiopian flag. They pledge to give their blood, literally, in a war the government calls existential.

    Kenea Yadeta, Ethiopian Minister of National Defense (through translator): Our recruits shall bury the enemy and make sure Ethiopia's sovereignty is respected.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    That enemy is in Tigray in Northern Ethiopia, led by the local government, Tigrayan People's Liberation Front, or TPLF.

    Today, Ethiopia's federal government is waging war against Tigray not with arms, but food. Five million Tigrayans don't have the means to eat, and rely on aid. But many World Food Program trucks are blocked by the Ethiopian government. The last convoy allowed into Tigray was three weeks ago, a fraction of what's needed to stop starvation.

  • Marixie Mercado:

    This is a really large humanitarian disaster.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Marixie Mercado of UNICEF just returned from Tigray. She saw an acute crisis. Last month, hundreds of Tigrayan women lined up with the most vulnerable victims.

    UNICEF says, over the next year, 100,000 Tigrayan children face life-threatening malnutrition, 10 times the normal number. Nearly half-a-million are facing famine. Aid workers handed out high-calorie vitamin-fortified biscuits to try and save children's lives.

  • Marixie Mercado:

    There is very little or none of the therapeutic food that these severely, acutely malnourished children need in order to survive. There's almost no electricity. There's no antibiotics. So, all of this put children at huge risk.

  • Yohannes Abraha:

    Unless we act now, then we will witness, and, of course, we will shoulder the responsibility of losing the lives of millions in Tigray.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yohannes Abraha represents the TPLF overseas. Until last year, he worked for Ethiopian government. He now accuses them of withholding food as a weapon of war, and risking a repeat of the famine 40 years ago that killed a million Ethiopians.

  • Yohannes Abraha:

    If they don't get the necessary and emergency food aid, then we will witness the catastrophic famine that we have witnessed in Ethiopia in the 1970s, '80s.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The Ethiopian government says the crisis started late last year when Tigrayan forces attacked a federal outpost. Federal forces and their allies from neighboring Eritrea and the Amhara region waged a scorched-earth campaign and occupied parts of Tigray.

    Humanitarian groups accused them of crimes against humanity, including indiscriminate killings and widespread rape. But in late June, Tigrayan forces pushed federal Ethiopian soldiers out of Tigray. They paraded Ethiopian and allied Eritrean prisoners through the streets.

    In Addis Ababa, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed claimed he had withdrawn from Tigray for a humanitarian cease-fire.

  • Johnnie Carson:

    His decision to pull out for humanitarian reasons may, in fact, have been a cover for military defeat.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Ambassador Johnnie Carson served as the top U.S. diplomat in numerous African countries and is now senior adviser at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

  • Johnnie Carson:

    The Ethiopian military has, in fact, been seriously damaged, even decimated by the conflict in the north.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And so humanitarian groups say the federal government is now regrouping and turning to other ethnic militias to target Tigray.

    Tigray is fighting neighboring Amhara over territories that both claim as their own. This video purportedly shows a priest blessing Amharan fighters. Tigray also created a new front in the Eastern region of Afar, where local fighters are being backed up by militias from Oromia.

  • Yohannes Abraha:

    Defense forces of Tigray are duty bound to neutralize such forces. So, yes, they were crossing borders from Tigray and attacked these forces.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But claiming to defend territory by expanding past its own borders is exactly what senior U.S. officials urged Tigray not to do.

    And now the ethnic violence is spreading further. Militias in Afar are fighting in the far-eastern Somali region. Hundreds of Somali residents, mainly women and children, recently gathered to protest. The increasing ethnic violence now means the conflict could be existential for the entire country.

  • Johnnie Carson:

    The current Ethiopian crisis puts Ethiopia at risk of collapse as a unified state. There is a great deal of concern about balkanization and about potential fragmentation.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    A military dictatorship known as the Derg ruled for 17 years, before TPLF rebels helped topple it in 1991.

    They divided the country into 10 states on sometimes fragile ethnic lines and often persecuted their opponents.

    Adotei Akwei leads Amnesty International's Africa team.

  • Adotei Akwei:

    The country is — it's cracking on fault lines because the system that kept it together was autocratic and repressive and very violent. And that system has fairly — has broken down.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Abiy took power from the TPLF in 2018 and promoted himself as creating a new democratic era. He won the Nobel Peace Prize for brokering peace with Eritrea after two decades of hostilities.

    But their mutual enemy is Tigray, and Abiy refers to the TPLF as weeds and Ethiopia's cancer.

    The Biden administration has tried to pressure Abiy's government to stand down, including during this week's visit to the region by USAID director Samantha Power. But humanitarian groups say the pressure needs to increase.

  • Adotei Akwei:

    Really need to turn up the pressure to say, this is not only very dangerous and — but it's also putting millions of lives at risk.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And without a political solution, that risk to lives and the country will become more dire.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.

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