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Biden meets with Kenyan president amid escalating crisis in neighboring Ethiopia

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WASHINGTON — President Biden will meet with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta on Thursday amid an unfolding humanitarian disaster in neighboring Ethiopia, which has called on the United States to draw more resources to the East African region.

Biden’s first face-to-face meeting at the White House as president with the leader of an African nation comes at a crucial time for Kenya, as it grapples with a simmering feud with Somalia over its maritime border, a fragile peace in South Sudan and the diplomatic challenge to avert an ever accelerating civil war and famine in northern Ethiopia.

The two presidents are expected to discuss the situation in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia, where some fighters have been accused of atrocities against civilians, including sexual assault, massacres and ethnic cleansing. Last month, Ethiopia expelled several senior United Nations officials over allegations that Ethiopian officials were blocking aid supplies to the region, while at least five million people there are in need of assistance during a catastrophic famine.

The decision to expel United Nations officials was also seen as a rebuke from Mr Biden, who last month threatened sweeping sanctions against both the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front and the regional government of the United Nations. Amhara, to stop the escalating violence. But the government has yet to implement the financial sanctions against the strategic ally.

The Biden administration sees a partner in efforts to stem the ongoing violence in Mr Kenyatta, the current United Nations Security Council president.

“It has the potential to become a very busy schedule because there are so many important regional issues that need to be addressed,” said Michelle D. Gavin, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and former US ambassador to Botswana. “Kenya’s neighborhood is getting tougher and it needs to be able to withstand the storm not only in terms of its own security concerns, but also be a sort of regional leader.”

Mr Biden and Mr Kenyatta are also expected to discuss the economy, climate change “and the need to bring transparency and accountability to domestic and international financial systems,” a White House statement said this week.

The discussion on finance may turn out to be tense after the publication this month of the Pandora Papers report, a collaboration between the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and media partners including The Washington Post and The Guardian, which uncovered information about how offshore financial services industry helped the wealthy hide their possessions. Mr Kenyatta, who campaigned on pledges to curb corruption, was among more than 330 current and former politicians included in the report for profiting from offshore companies and foundations that manage his assets.

“The president has a series of diplomatic meetings with leaders where he shares the interests of the United States and their country, and may also have areas where there is disagreement,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday, adding that she didn’t think he would “hold back”.

“We have different interests in working with Kenya and working with them on issues in Africa, in the region, and that will be the primary focus of the meeting,” Ms Psaki said.

For Mr Kenyatta, the meeting will serve as an opportunity to strengthen relations with the United States as his country suffers from the economic turmoil of the coronavirus pandemic.

Kenya is also deeply in debt after borrowing heavily from China to pursue major infrastructure projects. Mr Biden has tried to make countering China’s growing economic influence a focus of his national security strategy.

Tensions between Kenya and another neighboring country, Somalia, are mounting after the United Nations’ highest court sided with Somalia over a dispute over the demarcation of a disputed area in the Indian Ocean believed to be rich in oil and gas, a decision that has increased uncertainty in the Horn of Africa.

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