NAIROBI, Kenya — Growing American frustration over the war in the Tigray region of Ethiopia spilled over into an open confrontation on Monday when Ethiopian officials lashed out at Washington over new restrictions including aid cuts and a ban on some Ethiopians traveling to the United States.
The restrictions, announced by Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken on Sunday, amount to an unusual step against a key African ally, and a pointed rebuke to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, a Nobel Peace Prize winner whose troops and allies have been accused of ethnic cleansing, massacres and others atrocities that could amount to war crimes.
Despite “significant diplomatic engagement,” Mr. Blinken said in a statement, “the parties to the conflict in Tigray have taken no meaningful steps to end hostilities or pursue a peaceful resolution of the political crisis.”
American visa restrictions will apply to all actors in the Tigray conflict, Mr. Blinken said, including current and former Ethiopian and Eritrean officials, ethnic Amhara militias and Tigrayan rebels.
But there was little doubt that the main target of the measures was Ethiopia, the largest recipient of American aid in sub-Saharan Africa and a country long considered a key regional ally and a bulwark against Islamist militancy.
The United States is cutting security and economic assistance to Ethiopia — a small but symbolically important part of nearly $1 billion in mostly humanitarian annual aid. It was not clear exactly how much aid would be affected.
In a statement on Monday, Ethiopia’s foreign affairs ministry reacted with an expression of regret and what appeared to be thinly veiled threats. It accused the United States of meddling in its internal affairs and trying to overshadow national elections scheduled for June 21.
And it said that Ethiopia could be “forced to reassess its relations with the United States, which might have implications beyond our bilateral relationship.”
That could be a reference to Ethiopia’s ability to impede American diplomatic or strategic interests in the region, in countries like Somalia, Sudan and Djibouti. Ethiopia is one of the two largest contributors to United Nations peacekeeping missions.
“This is very significant,” Tsedale Lemma, editor of The Addis Standard newspaper, said of the American measures. “Ethiopia is a bulwark of American security in the Horn of Africa. If anyone in Addis Ababa is taking this lightly, they are not reading the writing on the wall.”
The American measures against Ethiopia, the harshest in several decades, aim to rally wider international pressure to force a halt to fighting in Tigray, which has been accompanied by widespread atrocities. Some 5.2 million people need urgent help and officials warn the region could plunge into famine by September unless large-scale relief aid, currently blocked by Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers is allowed through.
It is unclear, though, if the U.S. measures will work.
Mr. Abiy has often appeared impervious to outside pressure, instead strengthening his alliance with Isaias Afwerki, the autocratic leader of Eritrea, whose troops have been accused of many atrocities in Tigray.
Mr. Abiy tried to deflect international criticism by promising to protect civilians, to increase humanitarian access and to send home Eritrean troops — promises that American officials say he has failed to keep.
More recently Mr. Abiy has sought to rally supporters by turning his fire on Western critics.
“He relishes riling up his base,” said Ms. Tsedale, who lives in Germany. “Some of his speeches in the last week went on and on, using offensive language and saying things that make your skin crawl.”
The American measures announced Sunday were presented as an initial diplomatic salvo that aimed to stop the fighting in Tigray and allow immediate humanitarian access to stave off a possible famine.
Officials “responsible for, or complicit in, undermining resolution of the crisis in Tigray” will be barred from the United States, Mr. Blinken said. American officials said privately that a list of barred officials including senior Ethiopians had already been drawn up, and that names would be added to it unless Mr. Abiy’s government changed course in Tigray.
The United States is unlikely to bar Ethiopian ministers at first, one official said, but it could prevent family members from vacationing in the United States or studying at American colleges.
How much American aid to Ethiopia would be affected is murky. In 2019 the United States gave $923 million, according to USAID, although the vast majority of that money was for humanitarian purposes — health care, food aid, education and democracy support — that will not be hit by the new measures.
The United States had already suspended $23 million in security aid to Ethiopia. Officials say the new measures will preclude any American arms sales to Ethiopia, although much of the country’s weapons come from Russia.
Still, there could be other impacts. Western diplomats say the United States could block international funding to Ethiopia from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund — integral to Mr. Abiy’s economic plans.
American officials are also seeking to pressure Eritrea, whose forces have been accused of serious atrocities in Tigray, to stop the fighting. But Eritrea’s leader, Mr. Isaias, spent many years under sanctions until 2018 when he made peace with Mr. Abiy, and seems to thrive on international isolation — even as his country sinks deeper into poverty.
Instead, the United States is turning up the heat on Mr. Abiy, once seen in the West as a visionary young leader and hailed for his brave reforms. He is increasingly seen as a stubborn and reckless leader who is unable or unwilling to stem the atrocities in Tigray that are shredding his reputation.
Several senior American officials have met with Mr. Abiy to appeal for an end to the fighting in Tigray including Senator Chris Coons, an envoy dispatched by President Biden in March, and Jeffrey Feltman, the recently appointed Horn of Africa envoy.
American officials worry that the growing chaos in Tigray could destabilize the entire Horn of Africa region, or jeopardize efforts to mediate a high-stakes dispute with Egypt over the massive hydroelectric dam that Ethiopia is building on the Nile.
The growing humanitarian crisis, including the threat of a famine within months, is also driving the sense of urgency.
Those responsible for the Tigray crisis “should anticipate further actions from the United States and the international community,” Mr. Blinken said. “We call on other governments to join is taking these measures.”
Simon Marks contributed reporting from Brussels.