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USA.gov: Briefing with Senior State Department.... ...,

Posted by: Berhane Habtemariam

Date: Sunday, 21 November 2021

...Briefing with Senior State Department Officials
 On Efforts to Facilitate the Departure of American Citizens from Ethiopia	 Special Briefing

Office of the Spokesperson

Via Teleconference

November 16, 2021
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MODERATOR:  Thank you, Operator, and good afternoon, everyone.  I’d like to thank all of you for joining us today for this on-background briefing to learn more about the Department of State’s ongoing effort to help facilitate the departure of U.S. citizens from Ethiopia.  To help explain our efforts and our messages to U.S. citizens, both those in Ethiopia and those who may have family or friends there, we have joining us today representatives from the Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs and our Bureau of African Affairs.  As this is an on-background briefing, we’re going to refer to these two briefers as Senior State Department Official One and Senior State Department Official Two. 

Just for your information, but not for reporting, your two briefers today are [Senior State Department Official One] and [Senior State Department Official Two].  Both [Senior State Department Official One] and [Senior State Department Official Two] are going to give us some comments here at the top before we take your questions.  And throughout, again, we’re going to refer to [Senior State Department Official One] as Senior State Department Official One and [Senior State Department Official Two] is going to be Senior State Department Official Number Two. 

Finally, just so you’re tracking, the contents of this briefing are embargoed until the end of the call.  And with that, I’m going to turn it over to [Senior State Department Official One] for some opening remarks.  [Senior State Department Official One].

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  Thank you, [Moderator].  Hello, everybody, and thank you for joining.  As [Moderator] mentioned, I am here representing the Bureau of Consular Affairs today.  I really appreciate all of you being here today to help us get the word out to U.S. citizens, both those who may still be in Ethiopia and their family and friends here in the United States. 

You have heard us say this many times, but it bears repeating:  We have no higher priority than the safety and security of U.S. citizens overseas.  That’s why we are urging U.S. citizens to leave Ethiopia now, while commercial flight options are available, even as we continue to engage in intensive diplomacy and work with partners in the region, including the AU, to urge all parties to end the military conflict, cease hostilities, and enter into negotiations, as my colleague will elaborate on.

We have seen that the security situation in Addis has remained fairly consistent over the last several days, and we are concerned that some U.S. citizens may be monitoring current conditions and concluding that it is safe to stay.  But our recommendation remains the same:  Leave now. 

I want to emphasize two reasons why U.S. citizens should leave Ethiopia as soon as possible.  First, they should leave while the security situation permits them to do so safely and while flights are available.  In other situations, we’ve seen that security conditions can deteriorate quickly and unpredictably.  Even if flights remain available, it can become dangerous to move to the airport.  Don’t put yourself or your family at risk by waiting.  Second, do not wait until the situation gets worse to decide to leave.  Leave before things change, because they can change in an instant and flight options could disappear. 

Department of State personnel go to great lengths to assist U.S. citizens in crisis, as long as it is safe to do so.  However, the U.S. embassy is unlikely to be able to assist U.S. citizens in Ethiopia with departure if commercial options become unavailable.  There are no plans to fly the U.S. military into Ethiopia to facilitate evacuations or replicate the contingency effort we recently undertook in Afghanistan, which was a unique situation for many reasons, and there should be no expectation, particularly after we have issued so many warnings that advise departing immediately, that the U.S. will be able to facilitate evacuation via military or commercial aircraft in a non-permissive environment, including Ethiopia. 

Between May 20th and November 11th, the U.S. Embassy in Addis has released 16 security alerts urging U.S. citizens in Ethiopia to depart now using commercially available flights and four travel advisories urging Americans to avoid traveling to Ethiopia.  Since November 5th, the embassy has sent roughly one message each day urging U.S. citizens to depart while commercial options exist, informing the public of available flight options, and offering any necessary support.  We are working to ensure wide distribution of these messages to U.S. citizens in Ethiopia, as well as the Ethiopian diaspora community in the United States, contacting Americans who we know are in the country, issuing messages on the embassy website, on travel.state.gov, and posting on the embassy Facebook page and social media platforms. 

The department and U.S. Embassy Addis will continue to provide information to U.S. citizens as we monitor commercial flight availability closely.  The U.S. embassy’s consular section remains open at this time to assist U.S. citizens.  We have expanded service hours so we are providing appointments for passports and other U.S. citizen services seven days a week for those preparing to depart, and are expediting the processing of emergency passports and visas.  We are processing repatriation loans for those U.S. citizens who cannot afford a commercial flight back to the United States.  We can provide those services now, but we cannot predict when and if conditions might change.  As we’ve seen recently, changes in the security situation can have an impact on embassy operations.  Again, now is the time to reach out to the embassy for departure assistance.

To wrap up, I’d like to recommend several actions that U.S. citizens in Ethiopia should take now.  Leave now, while commercial flights are still available and while it is safe to do so.  Enroll in our Smart Traveler Enrollment Program to get the latest information directly from the embassy.  Do not assume that the security situation will stay the same.  Monitor local conditions carefully.  Have a plan for departure that does not rely upon U.S. Government assistance.

If you decide to remain in Ethiopia, develop a plan to shelter in place safely.  Contact the embassy now if you need assistance in leaving and encourage your family members and friends still in Ethiopia to do the same.

[Redacted.]  Helping U.S. citizens in their moment of need is the first and most important responsibility of our embassies and consulates overseas.  Thank you again very much for helping us to get this message out.

And now I’ll turn it over to [Senior State Department Official Two].

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  Good morning, and thank you, everyone, for your time this morning.  The focus of today’s briefing is very rightly on the consular aspects of the ongoing – the crisis in Ethiopia, which (inaudible) the security and safety of American citizens is our highest priority, as my colleague just mentioned. 

Americans, Ethiopians, all those currently resident in Ethiopia will not be safe, however, until the fighting stops.  And the United States remains fully engaged in doing everything we can to get a cessation of hostilities, just as we’ve been doing since the beginning of the conflict.  We have repeatedly urged all parties to move away from the disastrous military conflict, to use restraint, end hostilities, respect human rights, refrain from hostile rhetoric, protect civilians, and allow humanitarian access. 

We’ve engaged in intensive and focused diplomacy for months.  And in March, President Biden dispatched Senator Chris Coons as his special emissary to Ethiopia, and then the administration appointed Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman as the Special Envoy to the Horn of Africa in April.  Both the President and Vice President have been personally engaged with leaders on the continent to help address the current crisis, and President Biden rallied our democratic partners at the G7 to focus on this issue.

Secretary Blinken has engaged with Prime Minister Abiy several times, including in recent weeks, and has similarly been in touch with leaders across the region and beyond with a focus on urging the parties to the negotiation table.  Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield has also consistently worked the issue with her UN counterparts and USAID Administrator Samantha Power has similarly engaged with the international community and traveled to the region to press for unhindered humanitarian access.

Our focus remains clear: an immediate cessation of hostilities without preconditions; access for all those in need, regardless of ethnicity or geography, to lifesaving humanitarian assistance; and an immediate end to human rights abuses and violations.  We welcome the leadership and diplomatic efforts of AU High Representative Obasanjo towards these ends and urge the Government of Ethiopia and the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, or TPLF, to seize the opportunity to negotiate a cessation of hostilities without preconditions and commit to unhindered humanitarian access.

In recent months, President Biden announced a sanctions regime that authorized the United States to sanction all parties in the conflict, including the TPLF, the Eritrean Government, the Ethiopian Government, and regional authorities – any party who is found to be prolonging the crisis.  The first sanctions under this regime were announced a few days ago, focused on Eritrean targets.  Although recent designations are directed at the Eritrean Government and the ruling party, the United States remains gravely concerned about the conduct of all parties to the conflict. 

We are not imposing sanctions at this time on elements aligned with the Government of Ethiopia and the TPLF to allow time and space to see if the current talks can make progress.  If the parties fail to make meaningful progress, the United States stands ready to pursue additional sanctions, including against the Government of Ethiopia, regional authorities, and the TPLF.

Finally, and turning back to the reason for this briefing, let me echo my colleague and reiterate that our embassy and, of course, the consular section in Addis Ababa remain open under the leadership of our ambassador.  For all American citizens, now is the time to consider his or her own situation and, if necessary, to contact our consular colleagues in Addis Ababa.

Thank you.  And with that, I will turn it back over to [Moderator.]

MODERATOR:  Thank you, [Senior State Department Official One].  Thank you, [Senior State Department Official Two].  Operator, if you would, please, would you give the instructions for getting into our question queue?

OPERATOR:  Ladies and gentlemen, if you wish to ask a question, please press 1 then 0 on your touchtone phone.  You may remove yourself from the queue at any time by pressing 1-0 again.  If using a speakerphone, please pick up the handset before pressing the numbers.  Once again, if you have a question, please press 1 then 0 at this time. 

MODERATOR:  Thank you, Operator.  And let’s go to the line of Francesco Fontemaggi.  Francesco.

QUESTION:  Hello?  Hi, can you hear me?

MODERATOR:  Yes, we can hear you, Francesco.

QUESTION:  Okay, thank you.  I know this is always a tricky question, but I would like to see if you have a rough sense of how many Americans are currently in Ethiopia, if you know how many have started to left since you have issued your first warnings, and how many have reached out at the embassy for help in the repatriation loans and so on.  Thank you. 

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  Hi, thank you for that question.  It is very difficult to know how many U.S. citizens are in any country at any time because U.S. citizens are not required to register with the U.S. embassy, so we’re not going to share a number because we really don’t have an authoritative number.

And in terms of individuals contacting the embassy, what I can tell you is that the embassy is keeping up with requests, which are largely people looking to get their passports renewed or to document their U.S. citizen children.  And there are appointments available for both.  Thanks.

MODERATOR:  Let’s go to the line of Jennifer Hansler.

QUESTION:  Hi, can you hear me?

MODERATOR:  Yeah, we can hear you, Jennifer. 

QUESTION:  Thank you.  I just wanted to follow up on Francesco’s questions.  I understand that it is hard to track, but do you have rough – like a ballpark rough estimate?  Is it hundreds, is it thousands of American citizens left in country?  And have there been any specific threats made against U.S. citizens in Ethiopia?  When the Travel Advisory went up to Level 4, there was some pretty intense advice for folks who were planning to stay regarding if they were taken hostage, for example.  Have there been specific threats on that front?  Thank you. 

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  Hi.  Yeah, again, on the numbers, I’m just not going to go there because I can’t give you an authoritative number.

In terms of the Travel Advisory, I mean, we tried to be very forward-leaning in describing the types of threats that we are aware of in Ethiopia.  We do need people to take the Travel Advisory very seriously, and so the threats described in there are all threats which U.S. citizens do encounter, have encountered.  So our goal is to have people consider that and take our advice and please leave.  Thank you. 

MODERATOR:  Let’s go to the line of Nick Schifrin.

QUESTION:  Again, thanks for doing this.  [Senior State Department Official Two], I want to zoom in on one of the last things you said:  We are not announcing sanctions against the Government of Ethiopia or TPLF in order to give the parties to make progress diplomatically.

So last week, the phrase used by Ned and by Obasanjo was “a window” of diplomacy.  Since then, the Ethiopian Government has promised to allow trucks in Tigray, and nothing has changed.  Feltman’s left; Obasanjo’s not there.  So why do you think that there’s still a sign or there’s still room to – for the two sides to make progress, and by what deadline are you suggesting they need to make progress before new sanctions would be imposed?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  My understanding is that President Obasanjo is planning to return to Ethiopia in the coming days, and we will be consulting with partners and seeing what makes sense and how we can support his efforts, including whether it makes sense that – for Ambassador Feltman to return.

A lot of the conversations that President Obasanjo had with both parties require them to consult internally, and so we think that this is a very active process.  We have not given a deadline by which progress needs to be made but are still supporting the process as much as possible and looking for there to be progress. 

MODERATOR:  Let’s go to the line of Conor Finnegan.

QUESTION:  Hey, a couple of follow-up questions.  Can you say how many Americans have asked for their repatriation loan, since you can’t give the number of total Americans?  Excuse me.  And are you able to provide consular support so far to the U.S. citizens who are Tigrayan and who have been detained by the federal government?  Can you give a rough number of how many cases there are?  Thank you. 

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  Hi.  I know you guys want numbers, and I’m not going to be able to give you numbers.  But let me start with the Tigrayans.  Obviously, we have no higher priority than U.S. citizens, especially U.S. citizens who are incarcerated.  And so we are aware of arrests, and we are working with the Government of Ethiopia to make sure that we can obtain access and address those situations.

In terms of the Tigrayan Americans in Mekelle, we are very, very well aware of the situation and very concerned about these individuals as well.  I cannot go into details on that either because of operational and security concerns, but we are very aware.  Thank you.

MODERATOR:  Let’s go to the line of Daphne Psaledakis.

QUESTION:  Hi, thank you for doing this.  Has the U.S. had contact with Addis since last week’s sanctions were announced on Eritrea?  And can you give any update on if there’s been any indications of progress that Blinken and others said the U.S. was looking for after that announcement?  And then just to also follow up on the numbers, can you at least say how many Americans wish to leave that you’re in touch with?  Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  To come under the first question, if I may, we have been in touch with the government quite extensively since the sanctions were announced and continue to push for progress in tandem with Obasanjo and others in the region who very much recognize the need for a cessation of hostilities, immediate humanitarian access, and an end to the human rights abuses and violations.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  Hi.  In terms of the numbers of U.S. citizens, again, one of the things to keep in mind is that commercial flights are wide open, and so Americans really don’t need a lot of help from us, right.  It’s a matter of them simply booking a flight on any number of carriers right now and leaving.  So we don’t have people really coming to us for that kind of assistance.  We do have individuals applying for passports and have had a few looking at repatriation loans.  What I can tell you is those numbers are quite low, but that’s as far as I’m able to go.

MODERATOR:  Okay, let’s go to the line of Nick Colin (ph).

QUESTION:  Hi, can you hear me? 

MODERATOR:  We hear you, Nick. 

QUESTION:  Okay, great.  Has the State Department started NEO planning or coordinated with DOD in anticipation of that potential need?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  Yeah, I’ll say this.  We are obviously actively engaging in planning a range of contingencies, as we do in any crisis situation.

MODERATOR:  Okay.  And I know we’ve got a hard stop for our briefers today, and we don’t have any more questions in the question queue.  So I think at this time we’ll go ahead and draw this briefing to a close.  I do want to thank our two briefers, [Senior State Department Official One] and [Senior State Department Official Two] who, again, you will be able to refer to a senior State Department official one and senior State Department official two.  With that, this on-background briefing is concluded, and the embargo is lifted.  Have a good rest of your day.

    USA.gov

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