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25th Feb 2021

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Finnish EU envoy to investigate 'dire' Ethiopia war

  • Finnish foreign minister Pekka Haavisto (r) and EU foreign relations chief Josep Borrell (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

The security situation in Ethiopia was "dire", as Finnish foreign minister Pekka Haavisto prepared to travel to the region on an EU fact-finding mission.

"Nearly three months after the start of the conflict ... the security situation in Tigray [a region of Ethiopia] remains dire, with reports of localised fighting especially in rural areas," Haavisto told EUobserver.

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"There is news circulating that hundreds of thousands of people have yet to receive [humanitarian] assistance," he said.

But "access to the affected regions remains limited due to the challenging security environment and bureaucratic obstacles," he added.

War broke out last year between the government of prime minister Abiy Ahmed and the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), a local power which defied his rule.

The TPLF leader, Debretsion Gebremichael, said on Sunday (1 February) that the Ethiopian army was guilty of "genocide" and "massacres".

He also said three foreign powers were fighting on Ethiopia's side, while urging the international community to investigate "the atrocities" he spoke of.

An Ethiopian government spokeswoman told the BBC that Gebremichael's words were "the delusions of a criminal clique" and accused the TPLF of "horrendous crimes" in return.

Ethiopia has also denied that Eritrean and Somalian forces, as well as Emirati drones, were fighting on its side.

But the US state department has confirmed that Eritrea was involved.

And Tigrayans who fled to neighbouring Sudan have told Human Rights Watch, an NGO, that Ethiopian forces were guilty of indiscriminate shelling and extrajudicial killings.

For his part, Finland's Haavisto said: "The regional impacts of the Tigray conflict are of growing concern".

"Reports indicate that more than 58,000 refugees have fled to Sudan and tensions in the border areas are growing dangerously," he added.

The Nordic diplomat planned to go to "Ethiopia and its neighbouring regions" in the "next few weeks", he said, after EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell tasked him with the mission last week.

Haavisto is to travel with Alexander Rondos, an EU special representative for the Horn of Africa.

An internal EU report, last November, said Europe feared "the unravelling of the Ethiopian state" and the creation of millions of refugees if the war got worse.

And it feared instability could spread to neighbouring Djibouti, Eritrea, and Somalia.

The Ethiopia conflict is just one of several in the EU's southern neighbourhood, including ones in Libya, Israel, the Sahel, and Syria.

Meanwhile, Europe's eastern flank is also becoming increasingly volatile.

Warfare recently erupted in Azerbaijan and goes on unabated in eastern Ukraine.

A political crisis in Belarus and mass-scale demonstrations in Russia have also posed questions about the future of the ruling regimes there.

Russia diplomacy

Russia, on Sunday, arrested another 4,000 people in nationwide protests calling on authorities to free opposition hero Alexei Navalny.

"Russian citizens' right to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression should be respected," Haavisto told EUobserver.

Borrell, the EU top diplomat, is himself going to Moscow at the end of this week to urge Navalny's release and to discuss "strategic" issues.

And it was important for the EU to keep up Russia diplomacy despite the deteriorating ties, Haavisto said.

He also highlighted the need for "people-to-people contacts" between ordinary Russians and Europeans, "which have taken a big setback from the Covid pandemic".

"We have a lot of experience on this, as Finland issues the highest number of Schengen visas in Russia," Haavisto said, referring to Europe's 'Schengen' free-travel area.

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