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Antony Blinken starts his 3-nation visit to Africa in Kenya

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The civil war in Ethiopia and a military takeover in Sudan loom large as Secretary of State Antony Blinken begins his first trip to Africa as America's top diplomat. He joined Kenya's foreign minister in Nairobi today in calling for a cease-fire in Ethiopia before that conflict spills over into the region. NPR's Michele Kelemen is traveling with the secretary and has this report.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Secretary Blinken calls it an absolute necessity to stop the fighting in Ethiopia and get humanitarian aid flowing to parts of the country now facing famine.

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ANTONY BLINKEN: We are gravely concerned about the escalating violence, the expansion of fighting throughout the country and what we see as a growing risk to the unity and to the integrity of the Ethiopian state.

KELEMEN: The U.S. is urging Americans to leave Ethiopia and warning of mounting atrocities by the Ethiopian government and rebels in Tigray. When asked if the U.S. could call this a genocide, Secretary Blinken said he will follow the facts

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BLINKEN: Regardless of what we call it, it needs to stop. And there needs to be accountability. And we're determined that there will be.

KELEMEN: How to stop this spiraling war was one of the topics he discussed in a longer-than-expected private meeting with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, who recently visited Ethiopia. Kenya's foreign minister, Raychelle Omamo, says Kenyatta is approaching Ethiopia as a friend and next-door neighbor.

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RAYCHELLE OMAMO: And friends and neighbors believe in the potential of their neighbor. We believe in the potential of Ethiopia to find a resolution to this crisis. We believe that a cease-fire is possible.

KELEMEN: Blinken describes Kenya as an important partner in this. But while the U.S. works with Kenya on that front, activists are urging the secretary not to turn a blind eye to troubles in Kenyan politics. The next round of elections is still 10 months away, but Amnesty International's Irungu Houghton says there are signs that it could be very contested and violent.

IRUNGU HOUGHTON: It's really important that America continues to be vigilant, to be attentive and engaged - and not give Kenya a free pass because the neighborhood is so turbulent.

KELEMEN: He was speaking in a noisy hotel lobby after his meeting with Blinken.

HOUGHTON: What I've been seeing primarily is to ensure that the U.S. government remains principled rather than just pragmatic with regards to Kenya.

KELEMEN: Secretary Blinken did speak to the activists about what he calls a democracy recession in many parts of the world. Anne Ireri, who chairs the elections observer group in Kenya, took note of that.

ANNE IRERI: But what is important - and he reiterated - is that there's still no excuse for any kind of recession in terms of democracy. We must continue to be vigilant. We must remind our governments of the commitments they have made to us, ensuring democracy and the rule of law are adhered to.

KELEMEN: Democracy is just one of the themes Blinken is raising on this trip as the Biden administration tries to compete for influence with China in Africa. He's also talking about trade and investment, COVID-19 vaccination needs on the continent and fighting climate change.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing in non-English language).

KELEMEN: In a city forest in Kenya's capital, Blinken clapped along with children who serenaded him. He planted a tree and talked about Kenya's progress in reforestation, and the secretary took a short stroll with the daughter of the late Wangari Maathai, who received the Nobel Peace Prize for her conservation work in Kenya.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Nairobi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.