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07:59 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

The US government’s humanitarian agency has suspended food aid to Ethiopia after determining “that a widespread and coordinated campaign is diverting food assistance from the people of Ethiopia” – a nation where more than 20 million people require food support.

In a statement Thursday, a spokesperson for the US Agency for International Development (USAID) said the determination was made “after a country-wide review” and “in coordination with the Government of Ethiopia.”

“As a result, we made the difficult but necessary decision that we cannot move forward with distribution of food assistance until reforms are in place,” the spokesperson said.

On Thursday, USAID and the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a joint statement that their “two governments are conducting investigations so that perpetrators of such diversions are held to account,” calling the revelations of the diversion “deeply disturbing.”

The Washington Post first reported on the suspension of the food aid and the diversion scheme.

A document from the Humanitarian Resilience Development Donor Group, which was briefed by USAID, said that “the scheme appears to be orchestrated by federal and regional Government of Ethiopia (GoE) entities, with military units throughout the country benefiting from humanitarian aid.”

“Private grain and flour traders and operators have also played a role in the scheme,” said the document, which was seen by CNN.

A source familiar with the matter told CNN the agency found that food assistance was being diverted both before and after being given to beneficiaries.

The decision to suspend food assistance to Ethiopia came after USAID first announced a pause to aid in the Tigray region in early May. The northern Ethiopian region has suffered immense humanitarian devastation due to the impact of the country’s recent conflict.

In a statement, USAID Administrator Samantha Power said the agency found that “food aid, intended for the people of Tigray suffering under famine-like conditions, was being diverted and sold on the local market,” in the words of USAID Administrator Samantha Power.

The source familiar with the matter told CNN Thursday that once the scheme was discovered in Tigray, USAID redoubled its efforts to look more exhaustively at food assistance across the country, which led them to the determination that the campaign was happening nationwide.

In her statement about the Tigray food assistance suspension, Power said in early May that “USAID referred the matter to USAID’s Office of the Inspector General, which began an investigation.”

“We also launched a thorough review of our programs, and as part of the investigation, deployed senior leadership from our Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance to Ethiopia to conduct further assessments,” she said. “Following this review, USAID determined, in coordination with the U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa and our implementing partners, that a temporary pause in food aid was the best course of action.”

“The U.S. government has raised its concerns with officials from both the Ethiopian federal government and the Tigray Interim Regional Administration. Both federal and regional authorities in Ethiopia have expressed their willingness to work with us to identify those responsible and to hold them accountable,” Power said.

On Thursday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with his Ethiopian counterpart on the sidelines of the counter-ISIS ministerial in Riyadh.

“The Secretary welcomed the Ethiopian government’s commitment to work together to conduct a full investigation into the diversion of U.S. food assistance and to hold accountable those found responsible,” a readout from the US State Department said.

CNN’s Gianluca Mezzofiore contributed to this report.