U.S. condemns Ethiopia's expulsion of U.N. officials, warns of sanctions

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki speaks during a press briefing at the White House in Washington, U.S., September 29, 2021. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque     

WASHINGTON, Sept 30 (Reuters) - The United States condemns Ethiopia's expulsion of seven United Nations officials, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Thursday, warning that Washington will not hesitate to use sanctions against those who obstruct humanitarian efforts in the country.

The expulsions were announced by Ethiopia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs two days after the world body's aid chief said that a government blockade of humanitarian aid had likely forced hundreds of thousands of people in the northern region of Tigray into famine.

"The U.S. government condemns in the strongest possible terms the government of Ethiopia's unprecedented action to expel the leadership of all of the United Nations organizations involved in ongoing humanitarian operations," Psaki told reporters at a regular news briefing.

"This is a stain on our collective conscience, and it must stop."

Psaki called on the U.N. Security Council and other countries to take urgent action to make clear to the Ethiopian government that impeding humanitarian operations is unacceptable.

Washington has repeatedly called for a negotiated end to a conflict in the northern region of Tigray between federal forces and those aligned with the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), the political party that controls the region.

Since the conflict erupted in November, thousands have been killed and more than two million have fled their homes. Fighting spread in July from Tigray into the neighboring regions of Amhara and Afar, displacing hundreds of thousands of people.

Psaki warned that absent clear and concrete changes, the United States will impose sanctions.

She said President Joe Biden's administration is preparing to take "aggressive action" under an executive order issued earlier this month that allows Washington to impose sanctions on parties to the conflict if they obstruct humanitarian access, commit serious human rights abuse or prolong the conflict. read more

"We must see meaningful steps within weeks to initiate discussions to achieve a negotiated ceasefire, allow unhindered humanitarian access and ensure respect for human rights. Absent significant progress, we'll take action - and we have the methods to do that," Psaki said.

Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt, Alexandra Alper and Daphne Psaledakis; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Grant McCool

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