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ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) -The head of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) said on Wednesday during a visit to Ethiopia that she had raised her concerns about "dehumanising rhetoric" with authorities, amid war in the country's northern Tigray region.
Samantha Power's visit to the country, and to neighbouring Sudan, this week follows warnings from U.S. President Joe Biden's administration of punitive measures against the Ethiopian government if aid is unable to reach the Tigray region.
At a news conference in the capital Addis Ababa, Power did not specify whether one party in the nearly nine-month war in Tigray was responsible for lifesaving aid not reaching those in need. But she did say obstruction by all sides was hindering efforts.
She reiterated U.S. concerns over rhetoric deployed by unnamed Ethiopian parties in a conflict marked by reports of ethnic cleansing and other atrocities.
"Dehumanising rhetoric hardens tensions and can historically accompany ethnically-motivated atrocities," she said, adding she had delivered that message in a meeting with the country's Minister of Peace.
It was not immediately possible to reach Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s spokeswoman for comment.
Citing some ethnic Tigrayans who said they were released, Reuters reported last month that Ethiopian police had detained hundreds of ethnic Tigrayans in the capital since federal government forces lost control of the Tigray region's capital in June.
The Ethiopian government has denied targeting Tigrayans as an ethnic group, saying their fight is with the ruling party that controls the region.
War broke out in November between federal troops and the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), the political party that controls Tigray.
Thousands of people have died in the fighting, around two million people have been displaced.
The government declared victory three weeks later when it took the regional capital Mekelle, but the TPLF kept fighting. In late June, it recaptured Mekelle and has since retaken most of Tigray.
Ethiopian troops withdrew from most of Tigray when the TPLF retook Mekelle. The central government declared a unilateral ceasefire on what it said were humanitarian grounds.
But in recent weeks fighting has spread from Tigray into two neighbouring regions, Amhara and Afar, forcing around 250,000 people to flee and risking a further destabilisation of Africa's second most populous nation.
Dr Fanta Mandefro, deputy president of Amhara region, told Reuters on Wednesday that more than 200,000 people had been displaced since Tigrayan forces entered Amhara last month and the international community had done little to help.
“People are really suffering without any assistance, babies are born in the rain, mothers are delivering in the rain – it's beyond the imagination, the suffering of people," he said.
"The U.S is watching with greater alarm as a conflict that began in Tigray now is now beginning to spread," Power said.
Her visit comes amid growing international concern about the prospect of mass starvation in Tigray. The United Nations says that more than 5 million people in the region -- more than 90% of the population -- need emergency food aid.
The U.N. also says Tigray needs 100 trucks of food daily to prevent mass starvation.
Power said that a relatively small number of aid trucks had so far managed to reach Tigray, meeting only 10% of the need there.
The Ethiopian government denies blocking food aid and has blamed the Tigrayan forces for obstructing deliveries. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said publicly in June "there is no hunger in Tigray". At the time, Power wrote on Twitter that his statement "is false".
Power is the author of a Pulitzer Prize-winning book on the U.S. foreign policy response to genocide. She is also the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during the Barack Obama administration.
She is known for her frank public statements upholding U.S. views on human rights and atrocities abroad.
“Famine looms. It is not a crisis; it is a catastrophe,” Power tweeted in June.
Power was scheduled to meet Ethiopia's national security adviser and had requested to meet Abiy, USAID said prior to her trip. On Wednesday evening, she said she had not met with Abiy.
(Additional reporting by Katharine Houreld in Nairobi, Writing by Maggie Fick, Editing by Chris Reese, William Maclean)