The United States on Thursday suspended all food aid to Ethiopia, where its contributions feed an estimated 12 million people, citing “widespread and coordinated” theft of emergency rations in a countrywide scheme overseen by Ethiopian government officials.

The unusual decision was likely to hit hardest the millions of vulnerable Ethiopians already reeling from the combined effects of civil conflicts, climate change and swarms of locusts that devoured crops.

The discovery that American aid had been stolen in Ethiopia on an “industrial scale,” as one senior American official put it, was also another blow to Washington’s already-strained relations with Ethiopia, Africa’s second-most-populous nation, with 120 million people, and once a key American ally.

The United States is by far the largest aid donor to Ethiopia, where about 20 million people depend on food aid. In the past fiscal year, it gave $1.5 billion in aid, more than two-thirds of that in food. Although a significant amount of that aid reached the hungry, American officials said they had discovered misappropriation on a scale that left them with no choice but to halt the deliveries.

“We made the difficult but necessary decision that we cannot move forward with distribution of food assistance until reforms are in place,” the U.S. Agency for International Development said in a statement. “Our intention is to immediately resume food assistance once we are confident in the integrity of delivery systems.”

The USAID statement did not say who stole the food. But a briefing document by the Humanitarian and Resilience Donor Group, a coalition of foreign donors including USAID, said the scheme “appeared to be orchestrated by federal and regional government of Ethiopia entities, with military units across the country benefiting from humanitarian assistance.”

A senior USAID official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation, confirmed that account. After an extensive investigation in seven of Ethiopia’s nine regions, American officials uncovered “probably the largest scale diversion that we have seen, at least in recent history,” the official said.

But American officials, whose tense relations with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia had been slowly warming in recent months, were reluctant to publicly blame the Ethiopian government for the diversion of American aid.

After a meeting on Thursday with Ethiopia’s deputy prime minister, Demeke Mekonnen, on the sidelines of a conference in Saudi Arabia, the U.S. secretary of state, Antony J. Blinken, said he welcomed Ethiopia’s commitment “to work together to conduct a full investigation” into the missing aid, and “to hold accountable those found responsible.”

A spokeswoman for Ethiopia’s prime minister did not respond to a request for comment. But in a joint statement issued by the U.S. Embassy in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, the two governments committed “to collaborate toward an efficient aid distribution system” that would “safeguard assistance from diversion.”

Ethiopia has endured one of the worst droughts in decades in the Horn of Africa. The Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated the suffering, causing inflation and unemployment to rise. Locusts and conflict decimated the agricultural sector in some areas.

Relations between the United States and Ethiopia plunged during the two-year civil war in the northern Tigray region between forces of the federal government and regional leaders, which ended with a settlement in November. It was, by many estimates, the deadliest war this century, resulting in about 600,000 deaths and accusations of gross abuses by all sides.

Ethiopian forces, in particular, faced accusations of ethnic cleansing, mass rape and using food as a weapon of war during the campaign. In September 2021, President Biden threatened sweeping sanctions that drew a furious response from Mr. Abiy.

Human Rights Watch said last week that ethnic cleansing had continued in western Tigray since the November peace deal and that much of it was orchestrated by local officials.

But some Western countries are keen to edge back toward normal ties with Mr. Abiy. In April, a delegation from the International Monetary Fund visited Addis Ababa to discuss Ethiopian requests for emergency funds, which would require American assent to be approved.

Around that time, though, USAID officials were beginning to make alarming discoveries about their food aid program in Tigray, where most of the six million residents rely on food assistance to survive, and it quickly spiraled into a much wider investigation, according to the senior USAID official.

During five trips to Tigray in April, American officials discovered evidence of “widespread and systematic diversion of assistance,” the USAID official said. Instead of being delivered to the needy, food aid was being rerouted to commercial mills and sold on local markets.

In testimony to Congress on April 26, the USAID administrator, Samantha Power, cited evidence of “collusion between parties on both sides of the conflict,” referring to the Ethiopian and regional Tigrayan authorities. On May 3, USAID suspended food aid to Tigray.

By then, the U.N. World Food Program, one of the main agencies that deliver American aid in Ethiopia, had already paused its operations in Tigray based on similar suspicions. (USAID depends on large aid groups to deliver its supplies).

American investigators quickly widened their focus. They visited refugee camps, markets and 63 flour mills in seven of Ethiopia’s nine regions, where they interviewed commercial traders, officials and aid beneficiaries.

What they discovered was a “coordinated and criminal scheme” that deprived Ethiopia’s “most vulnerable” citizens of lifesaving assistance, the donor group’s briefing document said. It worked differently depending on the region. In some places, officials collected aid from beneficiaries and diverted it to flour mills. In others, beneficiary lists were inflated with false names — or hungry people never received the aid intended for them.

American investigators found evidence that food from other countries had also been stolen, including wheat donated by France, Japan and Ukraine through the World Food Program.

The senior USAID official said investigators were still trying to determine who coordinated the scheme and at what level. But on the ground, it was run by federal and local officials, often in collusion with grain and flour traders.

The United States hopes to resume deliveries “as soon as we can,” the official said.

Michael Crowley contributed reporting from Washington.

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