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U.S. joins last-ditch bid to stop Ethiopia conflict spiraling into an all-out civil war, and "time is short"

Small chance to keep peace in Ethiopia
Small chance to keep peace in Ethiopia 02:38

Johannesburg — Diplomats were scrambling on Tuesday for a peaceful resolution to the conflict putting hundreds of thousands of civilian lives at risk in Ethiopia. The war between Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's government and rebels that started a year ago has escalated and is now threatening his hold on power, with a coalition of opposition groups advancing on the capital, Addis Ababa.

Meanwhile, 16 United Nations staffers are being detained in the capital, and the U.N. is working with the Ethiopian government to secure their release, Stéphane Dujarric, the U.N. secretary-general's spokesman, told reporters in New York on Tuesday. An unspecified number of the staffers' dependents have also been detained, Dujarric said. Six other staffers were detained but have been released.

In a last-ditch bid to bring the warring parties to the negotiating table, U.S. Special Envoy to the Horn of Africa Jeffrey Feltman returned to Ethiopia this week. The U.S. State Department believes there's still a window of opportunity, working with the African Union, to hammer out a ceasefire agreement. 

It's Feltman's second visit within just a few days, and it comes as the United Nations warns that the risk of Ethiopia's conflict spiraling out of control into a full-blown civil war was "only too real."

U.S. Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa Jeffrey Feltman leaves after meeting with Sudan's Prime Minister in the capital Khartoum, in a September 29, 2021 file photo. ASHRAF SHAZLY/AFP/Getty

Feltman was joining forces in his bid to forge a peace agreement with the African Union's representative, former Nigerian President Olesegun Obasanjo, who was also in Ethiopia on Tuesday.

Washington has repeatedly called for an end to the fighting in Ethiopia, but it has only escalated in recent weeks and the newly-formed coalition of rebel forces is now threatening to advance on Addis Ababa.   

Tens of thousands of Ethiopians held pro-government rallies over the weekend, pledging to defend the capital and venting anger at countries that have called for ceasefire negotiations. Many rally-goers blasted Western media outlets, accusing them of broadcasting "fake news" about the rebels' advances. Some held placards saying "Shame on You USA."

The U.N. said last week that all parties to the conflict had violated international humanitarian law, citing reports of massacres, gang-rapes and ethnic cleansing. Most of the offenses have been carried out by Ethiopian and Eritrean forces, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said. 

Crisis in Ethiopia worsens as rebels advance 02:19

The U.S. has been one of the harshest critics of the Ethiopian government during the crisis, which started as a fight between Abiy's forces and rebels in the northern Tigray region just over a year ago.

The White House has accused his forces of gross human rights violations and decided to remove the country from a preferential trade agreement.

One of the biggest concerns is the growing humanitarian crisis. Hundreds of thousands of people are facing starvation as aid trucks have been unable to reach the capital of the Tigray region, Mekelle, for three weeks now due to continued airstrikes by government forces. 

The African Union's Obasanjo said he hoped to have a plan in place by the end of the week that both sides could agree to, laying out the withdrawal of foreign forces and a pull-back by all parties to the conflict. The plan would also enable access to cut-off areas for humanitarian aid to get in.

Ethiopia Tigray Crisis Abuses
People are seen in front of clouds of black smoke from fires in the aftermath of an airstrike in Mekele, the capital of the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia, Oct. 20, 2021. AP

But just two days after a rebel commander approaching Addis Ababa from the south warned that his forces were preparing "for another attack," the Nigerian diplomat stressed that time was running out to avert a wider war, with dire consequences for the region. 

"All these leaders, here in Addis Ababa and in the north, agree individually that the differences between them are political and require a political solution through dialogue," Obasanjo told the U.N. Security Council in a briefing from Ethiopia. "The window of opportunity we have is very little and that time is short."

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