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Biden's NSA pick Jake Sullivan warns of 'war crimes' risk in Ethiopia

In one of his first tweets after being named, Sullivan warned about "the risk of violence against civilians, including potential war crimes."
Image: A damaged tank stands abandoned on a road as a truck of the Amhara Special Forces passes by near Humera, Ethiopia
A truck of Ethiopia's Amhara Special Forces passes a damaged tank near the city of Humera on Sunday.Eduardo Soteras / AFP - Getty Images

President-elect Joe Biden's pick for national security adviser warned Wednesday about the risk of war crimes in Ethiopia, where government forces are surrounding a city governed by rebellious regional leaders in what's threatening to spiral into civil war.

In one of his first tweets after being named, Jake Sullivan warned about "the risk of violence against civilians, including potential war crimes" in the East African country.

Though brief, Sullivan's tweet provided a taste of a new foreign policy tone adopted by the incoming administration. He urged "both sides" to engage with a plan by the African Union, which is deploying three former African leaders as mediating envoys.

The conflict in Ethiopia started earlier this month when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed launched an offensive against the Tigray People's Liberation Front, known as the TPLF, which rules the mountainous Tigray region.

Hundreds, possibly thousands of people have already been killed, while around 40,000 have fled to neighboring Sudan. Aid agencies say they can't access the region to provide food, water and medicine to civilians caught on the front lines.

Sullivan's take contrasted with that of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who last week focused on calling out attacks by the TPLF, while commending the "restraint" shown by government forces. Later in his remarks, Pompeo did go on to ask both sides "to take immediate steps to de-escalate the conflict, restore peace, and protect civilians."

President Donald Trump has often been less measured, causing rancor last month by suggesting Egypt might "blow up" Ethiopia's $4.6 billion hydroelectric dam on the Nile. In 2018, he referred to African nations as "shithole countries," a Democratic aide told NBC News at the time.

International observers are watching Ethiopia with alarm.

Ahmed, who won the Nobel Peace Prize last year for his deal with neighboring Eritrea, is calling the offensive a "law enforcement operation" in response to the TPLF attacking a military base, which he labeled "treason." He also alleges the group has attempted to subvert democracy by "training, arming and financing criminal elements" who have carried out attacks.

The TPLF, in turn, accuses Abiy of persecuting Tigrayans since he took office in 2018. It sees his attempts to centralize federal government power as an attack on their devolved regional rule.

The government has issued a 72-hour ultimatum, which ends Wednesday, telling fighters to surrender and civilians to leave before it launches an assault on the region's capital, Mekele, and its 500,000 people.

"We want to send a message to the public in Mekele to save themselves from any artillery attacks," military spokesman Col. Dejene Tsegaye said on state television according to The Associated Press. "After that, there will be no mercy."

Image: Ethiopian refugees rest in Qadarif region, easter Sudan, Friday, Nov 20, 2020. Thousands of Ethiopians fled the war in Tigray region into Sudan.
Ethiopian refugees rest in Qadarif region, eastern Sudan, on Friday.Marwan Ali / AP

The TPLF regional leader Debretsion Gebremichael told Reuters his fighters were "ready to die in defense of our right to administer our region."

Communications to the region have been severed, so it's unclear whether civilians are aware of the government's ultimatum.

Sullivan isn't the first to warn about possible war crimes. An investigation by the human rights group Amnesty International said that scores, likely hundreds, of laborers were hacked to death in Tigray earlier this month.

"If confirmed as having been deliberately carried out by a party to the current fighting, these killings of civilians would of course amount to war crimes," United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said in a statement, calling for an investigation.

On Wednesday, Ethiopia's prime minister rejected these statements from abroad, saying he and his government "respectfully urge the international community to refrain from any unwelcome and unlawful acts of interference."

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.