WASHINGTON, March 10 (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will travel to Ethiopia next week, the State Department said on Friday, as concerns linger over the implementation of the peace agreement following the conflict in the Tigray region that left tens of thousands dead and millions uprooted.
The visit, set as Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed works to reestablish himself on the world stage following the two-year Tigray war, comes as foreign troops remain within the region and bureaucratic hurdles hamper the humanitarian response.
Blinken will also visit Niger, a key U.S. security partner, during the trip, State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a statement. It will be the first-ever visit to Niger by a U.S. secretary of state.
Africa has emerged as a focus for Washington as it aims to position itself as a partner to countries in the region amid competition with China, which has sought to expand its influence by funding infrastructure projects on the continent.
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The visit to Addis Ababa and Niamey is one of a slew of high-level visits the Biden administration has planned to Africa this year.
Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Molly Phee told reporters Blinken is expected to meet with the leadership of the Ethiopian government and Tigrayans while in Ethiopia, where he will discuss the implementation of the ceasefire.
Phee said relations with Ethiopia were not back to normal following the “earth shattering” conflict.
“To put that relationship in a forward trajectory, we will continue to need steps by Ethiopia to help break the cycle of ethnic political violence that has set the country back for so many decades,” Phee said.
ALLEGATIONS OF ABUSES
The Ethiopian government’s two-year conflict with forces in the northern Tigray region ended last November when the two sides signed a deal. Both sides blamed each other for widely documented atrocities, including massacres, rape and detentions without trial.
The war pitted the federal government and its allies against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the party that controlled Tigray.
Allegations of abuses, especially sexual violence, have persisted after the deal was signed, according to half a dozen humanitarians in the region.
Eritrean troops remain in several border areas while militia from neighboring Amhara region still occupy large swaths of territory in contested areas of western and southern Tigray, humanitarians said.
Their presence is seen as a key obstacle to the effective implementation of the deal.
Eritrean Information Minister Yemane Gebremeskel did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Gizachew Muluneh, spokesperson for the Amhara regional government, said it and the people of Amhara were “always ready to co-operate with peace deal process and activities.”
Scarcity of cash and fuel are also hampering the delivery of food and medical supplies, humanitarians and diplomats said.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Cameron Hudson, a U.S. Africa policy expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Blinken’s trip comes as Ethiopia is lobbying the United States to restore debt relief and financial assistance as Ethiopia also deepens conversations with China.
“I think it’s the right moment to continue the diplomacy. I don’t think it’s the right moment to kind of declare mission accomplished in Ethiopia,” Hudson said.
While in Addis Ababa, Blinken will also meet with African Union Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat.
The travel to Niger comes at a critical time for West Africa, where groups linked to Islamic State and al Qaeda continue to carry out routine attacks on civilians and the military despite costly interventions from international forces.
What began as a Mali-based insurgency in 2012 has since ballooned into a regional network of competing Islamist groups that operate across large areas of landlocked Niger, Burkina Faso and beyond.
The violence has killed thousands and displaced millions.
Blinken will meet President Mohamed Bazoum and Foreign Minister Hassoumi Massaoudou in Niamey to discuss diplomacy, democracy, development and defense, Price said.
(This story has been corrected to fix Blinken’s travel date in the headline and paragraph 1)
Reporting By Paul Grant; Editing by Doina Chiacu
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