U.S. focused on delivery of humanitarian aid to Ethiopia's Tigray

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa David Satterfield told Reuters on Wednesday the top U.S. priority in the region is the delivery of humanitarian aid to Ethiopia’s conflict-ravaged Tigray region, where millions are dependent on it.

FILE PHOTO: Acting U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, David Satterfield, prepares ahead of his address to the 11th Annual International Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) Conference in Tel Aviv, Israel January 31, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

“Our efforts are focused squarely on effecting the initiation and sustainment of vital humanitarian assistance to Tigray, as well as maintaining and enhancing our assistance to all other communities in need,” Satterfield said in his first interview since taking the job in January.

“There can be no higher priority. ... What we do, what we say - all is focused upon achieving and maintaining that goal.”

Satterfield noted that in the last week, attempts to move assistance to affected communities in Ethiopia’s Afar region, which neighbors Tigray, were blocked by “local elements out of the deep resentment, distrust of intentions on the part of everyone.”

A United Nations convoy of food headed towards the town of Berhale and other border areas in Afar this week was stoned, the drivers were beaten and the food looted in an area under government control, three humanitarian workers told Reuters.

“A convoy carrying food for displaced people in the Afar region was stopped by local communities in Afar over the weekend,” said a spokeswoman for the U.N.’s World Food Programme.

“The convoy returned safely to Semera. WFP continues to work with federal and regional authorities as well as local communities to ensure our convoys with food assistance reach all those in need across Northern Ethiopia.”

Fighting between Tigrayan and Afar forces has displaced at least 300,000 people since December and blocked food deliveries into Tigray, where millions of people are dependent on aid.

War broke out 16 months ago between Ethiopia’s federal troops and forces loyal to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which controls the Tigray region.

Since then, thousands have been killed and millions displaced. Fighting spread in July from Tigray into the neighboring Amhara and Afar regions before the rebellious Tigray forces were pushed back in December and lost areas they controlled in the two regions. The Tigrayan forces re-invaded Afar in January and still hold a swathe of territory there.

The United States has repeatedly called for a cessation of hostilities.

Satterfield also warned that the United States was prepared to impose further Sudan-related sanctions. The country, which his position also covers, has been rocked for months by protests following an October military coup.

“We are prepared to use and have signaled to all parties our willingness to use sanctions if we believe there is no alternative,” Satterfield said.

Political deadlock in Sudan following the coup has contributed to new pressure on a crippled economy and a stand-off between protesters and security forces.

Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk and Daphne Psaledakis; Editing by Richard Chang