NAIROBI, Kenya — The United States on Monday imposed new sanctions over Ethiopia's deadly Tigray conflict as hundreds of thousands of people face famine conditions under a government blockade the U.S. has called a "siege" and fighting spreads into other parts of the country.
The Treasury Department in a statement said the chief of staff of the defense forces of neighboring Eritrea, Filipos Woldeyohannes, was sanctioned under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act for leading an entity accused of "despicable acts" including massacres, widespread sexual assault, and the executions of boys. The statement again calls on Eritrea to remove its soldiers from Ethiopia's Tigray region permanently.
The nine-month war has killed thousands of people and left observers shocked as Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, teamed up with former enemy Eritrea to wage war on the Tigray forces, with civilians not spared.
Scores of witnesses have described to The Associated Press abuses such as gang-rapes, the destruction of health centers, the burning of crops and forced expulsions. Eritreans were often accused of some of the worst abuses. Ethiopia's government denied their presence in Tigray for months.
"The (Eritrean Defense Forces) have purposely shot civilians in the street and carried out systematic house-to-house searches, executing men and boys, and have forcibly evicted Tigrayan families from their residences and taken over their houses and property," the new U.S. statement said.
Eritrea's information minister, Yemane Gebremeskel, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The country shares a border with the Tigray region and is has been described by human rights groups as one of the world's most repressive nations.
The U.S. earlier this year signaled it was also losing patience with Ethiopia, Africa's second-most populous country, suspending millions of dollars in aid to a key security ally in the Horn of Africa and imposing visa restrictions on unnamed Ethiopians involved in the war.
The Tigray forces have since retaken much of the Tigray region of 6 million people, forcing Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers to retreat and regroup. But "the United States is concerned that large numbers of (Eritrean Defense Forces) have re-entered Ethiopia, after withdrawing in June," Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement.
The Tigray forces have now crossed into the Amhara and Afar regions, ignoring calls from the U.S. and United Nations to withdraw and vowing to press as far as the capital, Addis Ababa, to end the hostilities. Hundreds of thousands of people in Amhara and Afar have fled their advance, some alleging abuses against civilians.
Meanwhile the Ethiopian government has urged all capable citizens to war, and it has again cut off the Tigray region, with phone, internet and banking services down and truckloads of humanitarian aid almost at a standstill. Just 7% of the needed aid is reaching the region and food aid inside Tigray has now run out, the U.S. Agency for International Development said last week.
On the defensive, Ethiopia's government has rejected international "meddling" and accused humanitarian groups of arming or otherwise supporting the Tigray forces.
The U.S. sanctions represent new pressure to stop the fighting, allow unrestricted access to Tigray and engage in dialogue. But Ethiopia's government has declared the Tigray leadership, who long dominated the country's government before Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power and sidelined them, a terrorist group.
And the Tigray forces have laid out several conditions for talks, including the resumption of basic services to the region.