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The United States on Friday slapped new sanctions on Eritrea over the deadly conflict in neighboring Ethiopia, which it warned was at danger of "implosion" without a negotiated settlement.
Ahead of a three-nation trip to Africa next week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken also threatened to impose sanctions against the Ethiopian government and rebels unless they move forward on talks.
Failure to reach a settlement "would lead to the implosion of Ethiopia and spill over into other countries in the region, and that would be disastrous for the Ethiopian people and also for countries in the region," Blinken told reporters.
"The other path is to halt all of the military actions that are currently underway, sit down to negotiate a real ceasefire to make sure that humanitarian assistance can get in to all of the regions where people are in need," he said.
"I believe that that is still not only possible, but necessary."
The United States has condemned both the rebel Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, a onetime ally and Nobel Peace Prize winner, over a year of bloodshed that has left hundreds of thousands in famine-like conditions.
- Not targeting Ethiopians -
President Joe Biden in September signed an executive order paving the way for sanctions on Ethiopia and earlier this month decided to remove Ethiopia from a key trade agreement.
But measures imposed Friday over the conflict instead focused on Eritrea, one of the world's most closed states.
"We are not imposing sanctions at this time on elements aligned with the government of Ethiopia and TPLF to allow time and space to see if these talks can make progress," Blinken said in a statement, warning that the United States would not hesitate to pursue the two sides if diplomacy fails.
Eritrea has sent troops to back Abiy, who launched an offensive a year ago against the once dominant TPLF over an attack on the federal army.
"Eritrean forces have operated throughout Ethiopia during the conflict and have been responsible for massacres, looting and sexual assaults," a Treasury Department statement said.
The sanctions targeted the Eritrean Defense Force and President Isaias Afwerki's political party, the People's Front for Democracy and Justice, as well as other players in the authoritarian state.
TPLF spokesman Getachew Reda called the US move "commendable," saying it "at least recognizes the Eritreans' role in the genocidal campaign in Tigray," although he warned that Eritrea has "perfected evading sanctions."
The United States has repeatedly urged Eritrea to pull out of Ethiopia, including when US special envoy Jeffrey Feltman met Afwerki in May.
Cameron Hudson, a former US official now at the Atlantic Council, said there was little evidence to back up assertions in a recent joint UN-Ethiopian human rights investigation that Eritrean troops have committed the bulk of the egregious crimes in the conflict.
"Prime Minister Abiy remains in the driver's seat of this conflict and choosing to once again avoid sanctioning Ethiopian entities reflects a belief from Washington that Abiy can be engaged and his approach to this conflict changed," he said.
- Diplomatic steps -
Former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, serving as the African Union's special envoy, and Feltman both visited Ethiopia this week in hopes of making progress. Blinken travels to neighboring Kenya on Tuesday.
Ethiopia on Thursday laid out conditions for talks with the TPLF, which has made major gains in recent weeks and not ruled out a march on the capital Addis Ababa.
The conditions include a halt to attacks, a TPLF withdrawal from the neighboring areas of Amhara and Afar, and recognition of the government's legitimacy.
The TPLF in turn is demanding that aid be let into Tigray. No assistance has arrived by road since October 18, and 364 trucks are stuck in the capital of Afar waiting for authorization, according to the United Nations.
The world's best-known Tigrayan, World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said the UN agency could not send in medicine as Tigray was under an "effective blockade."
"People are dying because of lack of supplies," he told reporters in Geneva.
Ethiopian authorities have been accused in recent days of harassing or detaining Tigrayans who work for international organizations including the United Nations, drawing condemnation.