U.S. looks into reports of atrocities in Ethiopia’s Tigray region

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States is looking into reports of human rights abuses and atrocities in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, the U.S. State Department said on Monday.

Department spokesman Ned Price told a news briefing that the United States is “gravely concerned” about accounts last week by CNN and the BBC of a massacre in the region by Ethiopian forces.

“We are, of course, looking into these reports. We have taken close note of them and we’ll continue to pay close attention,” Price said.

“We strongly condemn the killings, the forced removals, the sexual assaults, the other human rights abuses that multiple organizations have reported,” Price added, declining to say who the United States believed was responsible.

Ethiopia’s Foreign Ministry has said a joint investigation with external experts into alleged human rights violations would start soon.

Ethiopia, Africa’s second most populous country, is struggling to control several flashpoints where ethnic rivalries over land, power and resources have ignited ahead of national elections scheduled for June.

Price also welcomed an Ethiopian foreign ministry pledge that Eritrean troops would withdraw from Tigray, calling such a withdrawal an important step forward in de-escalation in the region.

Eritrea and Ethiopia denied the presence of Eritrean troops in Tigray for months, despite dozens of eyewitness accounts. G7 countries including the United States called on Friday for a swift, unconditional and verifiable withdrawal of the Eritrean soldiers, followed by a political process acceptable to all Ethiopians.

“The immediate and complete withdrawal of Eritrean troops from Tigray will be an important step forward in de-escalating the conflict and restoring peace and regional stability,” Price told reporters.

(Reporting by Simon Lewis and Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Chris Reese and Will Dunham)

G7 countries urge independent probe into alleged rights abuses in Ethiopia’s Tigray

By Foo Yun Chee

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The United States, Germany, France and other G7 countries called on Friday for an independent and transparent investigation into alleged human rights abuses during the conflict in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region.

Ethiopia’s federal army ousted the former regional ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), from the capital Mekelle in November.

Thousands of people died, hundreds of thousands have been forced from their homes and there are shortages of food, water and medicine in the region. The government says most fighting has ceased but there are still isolated incidents of shooting.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said last week Eritrea has agreed to withdraw troops it had sent during the fighting into Ethiopian territory along their mutual border, amid mounting reports of human rights abuses. Eritrea has denied its forces joined the conflict.

The G7 foreign ministers of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States and EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell expressed their concerns in a joint statement.

“All parties must exercise utmost restraint, ensure the protection of civilians and respect human rights and international law,” they said.

“It is essential that there is an independent, transparent and impartial investigation into the crimes reported and that those responsible for these human rights abuses are held to account,” the ministers said.

They said the withdrawal of Eritrean forces from Tigray must be swift, unconditional and verifiable and that a political process acceptable to all Ethiopians should be set up that leads to credible elections and a national reconciliation process.

Ethiopia’s foreign ministry said in March it was ready to work with international human rights experts to conduct investigations on allegations of abuses.

(Reporting by Foo Yun Chee; Editing by Peter Graff)

Egypt’s Sisi says response will be felt if water supply affected by dam

CAIRO (Reuters) – Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said on Tuesday that there would be severe regional consequences if Egypt’s water supply was impacted by a giant hydropower dam being built by Ethiopia.

“I’m not threatening anyone here, our dialogue is always reasonable and rational,” Sisi said in a response to a question about any risk to Egypt.

“I say once again no one can take a drop from Egypt’s water and if it happens there will be inconceivable instability in the region.”

(Reporting by Nadine Awadalla and Mahmoud Mourad; Editing by Aidan Lewis and Alison Williams)

Biden dispatches U.S. senator to Ethiopia over humanitarian crisis

By Daphne Psaledakis

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Joe Biden is sending Senator Chris Coons to Ethiopia to meet with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and convey the president’s “grave concerns” over the humanitarian crisis in the Tigray region, where thousands have died following fighting.

Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan said in a statement on Thursday that Coons – a longtime Biden ally – would also consult with the African Union.

“Senator Coons will convey President Biden’s grave concerns about the humanitarian crisis and human rights abuses in the Tigray region and the risk of broader instability in the Horn of Africa,” Sullivan said.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken this month described acts carried out in the region as ethnic cleansing, an allegation rejected by Ethiopia.

“(The accusation) is a completely unfounded and spurious verdict against the Ethiopian government,” Ethiopia’s foreign ministry said on March 13, reacting to the allegation of ethnic cleansing.

“Nothing during or after the end of the main law enforcement operation in Tigray can be identified or defined by any standards as a targeted, intentional ethnic cleansing against anyone in the region,” it said. “The Ethiopian government vehemently opposes such accusations.”

Coons, who is expected to depart on Thursday, said in a statement that he looked forward to engaging with Abiy and conveying Biden’s concern.

“The United States is gravely concerned by the deteriorating situation in the Tigray, which threatens the peace and stability of the Horn of Africa region,” Coons said.

Ethiopia’s federal army ousted the former regional ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), from the capital Mekelle in November, after what it said was a surprise assault on its forces in the region bordering Eritrea.

The government has said that most fighting has ceased but has acknowledged there are still isolated incidents of shooting.

Ethiopia and Eritrea have denied the involvement of Eritrean troops in the fighting alongside Ethiopian forces, although dozens of witnesses, diplomats and an Ethiopian general have reported their presence.

Thousands of people have died following the fighting, hundreds of thousands have been forced from their homes and there are shortages of food, water and medicine in Tigray, a region of more than 5 million people.

(Reporting by Daphne Psaledakis, Susan Heavey and Patricia Zengerle; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

‘People die at home’: Tigray medical services struggle after turmoil of war

By Reuters Staff

NAIROBI (Reuters) – A diabetic mother died as her daughter searched the capital of Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region for insulin. Women gave birth unattended in the dark because their hospital had no electricity or staff at night.

Accounts from residents, medical workers and humanitarian groups illustrate people’s plight as Ethiopia struggles to revive a heavily damaged healthcare system in Tigray three months after fighting erupted between the military and the region’s former ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).

Some hospitals are barely functioning, with no water, electricity or food, they said. Most were looted of medicines; staff members fled.

“The health system in Tigray is reportedly nearly collapsing,” the United Nation’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said in a Feb. 4 report.

An assessment carried out this month by international aid agencies found that out of Tigray’s 40 hospitals, only 11 were fully functional. Fourteen were not working at all, nine were partly functioning and six were not assessed, the report said.

Ethiopian Health Minister Lia Tadesse said conditions were improving rapidly. The government has sent supplies to 70 of the region’s 250 health facilities, along with 10 ambulances, she told Reuters last week.

“So many health facilities have been looted, so we are working to get more equipment to the region,” she said. “The focus is to restore services, supporting health workers to come back and ensure they have the supplies.”

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed declared victory over the TPLF two months ago, but details of the devastation have been slow to emerge as communications to the region remain patchy, and the government tightly controls access for journalists and aid workers. Reuters has not been able to visit the region and could not independently verify accounts provided by residents and medical workers.

Prior to the outbreak of fighting on Nov. 4, most people in Tigray had easy access to a hospital or clinic, according to the Ministry of Health.

The conflict disrupted basic services, including diabetes treatment and maternal care, leading to “too many preventable deaths,” the International Committee of the Red Cross said in a Jan. 27 statement.

Only 30 of the region’s 280 ambulances are still available, according to OCHA.

One woman described searching the northern Tigray town of Sheraro, on Dec. 22 for pills to prevent pregnancy after a friend told her she had been gang-raped by five men.

“Not a single worker was in the hospital,” the woman told Reuters by phone, saying she was too afraid to be identified. “The whole hospital was looted … Apart from the roof and doors, nothing was left.”

She tried a health center, but said it too had been looted.

SLOW RECOVERY

When French aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) visited the northern city of Adigrat in mid-December, the hospital was mostly deserted, it said in statement last week. There were hardly any medicines, and no food, water or money.

Some injured patients were malnourished, the group’s emergency coordinator for Tigray, Albert Vinas, said in the statement.

Some services have since resumed, but the hospital still has no chemicals for its laboratory and no therapeutic food for malnourished children, an Ethiopian medical worker stationed there told Reuters on Saturday. He asked not to be identified, because he was not authorized to speak to journalists.

Hospitals in the towns of Adwa and Axum, in central Tigray, also had no electricity or water when MSF visited. All the medicines had been stolen from Adwa hospital and furniture and equipment broken, Vinas said.

“I saw people arrive at hospital on bicycles carrying a patient from 30 km (19 miles) away, and those were the ones who managed to get to hospital,” he said. “People die at home.”

MSF is now supporting four regional hospitals along with smaller health centers, and running mobile clinics in 15 locations.

RURAL AREAS OUT OF REACH

Most rural parts of Tigray remain out of reach to humanitarian groups because of continuing insecurity, or because they lack permission to go there, aid workers told Reuters. The TPLF withdrew from the regional capital Mekelle and major cities, but low-level fighting has continued in some areas.

Ethiopia’s Ministry of Peace said on Saturday that it was “moving with urgency to approve requests for international staff movements into and within Tigray” to ensure humanitarian assistance is expanded without delay.

A team from international aid group Action Against Hunger reached a town west of Mekelle for the first time on Jan. 23 and found it “pretty deserted”.

“We want to start having mobile health and nutrition clinics to operate in the rural areas,” the group’s country director Panos Navrozidis told Reuters, but added security was still fragile.

Staffing at medical facilities also remains a problem.

As many as 20 or 30 women were giving birth unattended daily in the central town of Shire because the hospital is not staffed overnight as healthcare workers are afraid of looters, an aid worker who visited last week told Reuters.

Almost all healthcare workers in Tigray had gone unpaid since the conflict began, a regional government report noted on Jan. 8, and three healthcare workers told Reuters last week they had still not been paid.

Health Minister Tadesse said money was being sent to local authorities as quickly as possible. Hospitals in Shire and Axum were functioning again, she said, although Adwa hospital remained out of service.

Help is coming too late for some.

One woman told Reuters her 55-year-old mother died in Mekelle on Dec. 4 after the family was unable to find insulin.

Mehbrit, who asked to be identified by one name for safety reasons, said she tried hospitals, the Ethiopian Red Cross Society and other diabetics, but no one had spare insulin.

For days, she said, she jolted awake each night to check her mother’s labored breathing.

“I was praying to God to bring mercy in the house,” Mehbrit said. “The insulin came 13 days after my mother died.”

Aid coming to north Ethiopia, refugees recount war suffering

ADDIS ABABA/HAMDAYET, Sudan (Reuters) – Relief agencies in Ethiopia prepared convoys on Thursday to truck aid into Tigray region, where a month of war is feared to have killed thousands of people and has forced refugees to flee along corpse-strewn roads.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed declared victory over the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) after federal forces captured the northern region’s capital Mekelle at the weekend.

However, TPLF leaders have dug into surrounding mountains in an emerging guerrilla strategy. “The war is a people’s war and will not end easily,” its spokesman Gebre Gebretsadkan said on Tigray TV, adding that fighting had continued round Mekelle.

One aid worker in touch with Tigray said clashes had been taking place to the north, south and west of the city. The government did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Diplomats in touch with sources on all sides say thousands of combatants and civilians appear to have died since Abiy’s offensive began on Nov. 4, after a TPLF attack on a military base was the last straw in their feud.

More than 45,000 refugees have crossed into neighboring Sudan, while many more have been displaced within Tigray.

One refugee, who gave his name only as Abraham, saw corpses in civilian clothes as he fled the Tigrayan town of Humera towards the border with Sudan.

“Nobody can bury them, they were outside on the road,” he recounted from Hamdayet, a Sudanese border transit point.

WAR CHILD

Ethiopia’s government and the TPLF have both accused each other of – and both denied – targeting civilians.

The TPLF said it had destroyed government tanks and accused Eritrea of deploying troops to back Abiy. Eritrea’s government could not be reached for comment but has previously denied that.

Claims from all sides have been hard to verify while access to Tigray region was blocked and communications largely down, though internet and phone services were returning this week.

In Qadarif, also in Sudan, the mother of a newborn baby recounted how she had fled Tigray at eight months pregnant.

“While I was frightened and running away, that’s when the pain started,” said Atikilti Salem, breastfeeding her 22-day-old baby Abeyam.

“I found a small village and gave birth in the hospital … I wanted to call her Africa, but I instead named her after the doctor who delivered her … When the war is over … I’m going to tell her the story of how she was born.”

Ethiopian authorities and the United Nations agreed to move humanitarian aid into federal government-controlled areas of Tigray. Some 600,000 people relied on food handouts even before the fighting.

Food stocks are nearly empty for 96,000 Eritrean refugees in Tigray, aid agencies say, while medics in Mekelle are short of painkillers, gloves and body bags.

“There’s an acute shortage of food, medicine and other relief,” tweeted Norwegian Refugee Council head Jan Egeland, saying relief convoys were ready to go.

Tigray’s new government-appointed leader Mulu Nega said help was on its way to areas of west Tigray including Humera.

REFORM SETBACK?

The first video from Mekelle since its capture on Saturday, from state-run ETV, showed people shopping and sitting on stools.

“Life is getting back to normal … Everything is, as you can see, very peaceful,” one man said in the footage which Reuters could not independently verify.

Tigrayans have strongly supported the TPLF and seen them as war heroes from the 1991 overthrow of a Marxist dictatorship.

Analysts fear that Abiy’s political reforms, after he took office in 2018, could be set back by the conflict, and his tougher line against foes including jailing opposition figures this year.

He became prime minister after nearly three decades of TPLF-led government that had become increasingly repressive.

Abiy, who comes from the larger Oromo and Amharic ethnic groups, reduced Tigrayans from government and security posts, saying they were over-represented for a group making up 6% of the population.

The TPLF accuses their ex-military comrade and government coalition partner of trying to increase his personal power over Ethiopia’s 10 regions. Abiy denies that, calling them criminals who mutinied against federal authority.

(Reporting by Addis Ababa newsroom, David Lewis and Nazanine Moshiri in Nairobi, Maggie Fick in Istanbul, Seham Eloraby and Baz Ratner in Ahmdayet, Sudan; Writing by Tim Cocks; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)

United Nations and Ethiopia reach aid pact for war-hit Tigray

ADDIS ABABA/NAIROBI (Reuters) – Ethiopia and the United Nations agreed on Wednesday to channel desperately-needed humanitarian aid to a northern region where a month of war has killed, wounded and uprooted thousands.

The pact, announced by U.N. officials, gives aid workers access to government-controlled areas of Tigray, where federal troops have been battling the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and captured the regional capital.

The war is believed to have killed thousands, sent 45,000 refugees into Sudan, displaced many more within Tigray and worsened suffering in a region where 600,000 people already depended on food aid even before the flare-up from Nov. 4.

As hundreds of foreign workers were forced to leave, aid agencies had appealed for urgent safe access.

Food is running out for 96,000 Eritrean refugees in Tigray.. And medics in the local capital Mekelle were short of painkillers, gloves and body bags, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said at the weekend.

“The U.N. and the Federal Government of Ethiopia have signed an agreement to ensure that humanitarians will have unimpeded, sustained and secure access … to areas under the control of the Federal Government in the Tigray Region,” U.N. humanitarian coordination agency OCHA said in a statement to Reuters.

The government has not commented on the agreement.

TELECOMS PARTLY RESTORED

After phone and internet connections were largely shut down when the war began, telecoms in half a dozen towns in Tigray were partly restored, Ethio Telecom said on Wednesday.

The state-run company said it was using alternative power sources and repairing network damage. Reconnected towns included Dansha, Humera and Mai Kadra, all controlled by the military.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed declared victory after Mekelle’s fall over the weekend, as TPLF leaders fled for the hills.

On Wednesday, he shifted focus to next year’s parliamentary election, meeting with political parties and election officials about the mid-2021 vote, his office said.

His government postponed it this year due to COVID-19, but Tigray went ahead anyway and re-elected the TPLF, a guerrilla movement-turned-political party.

That defiance was one reason for the federal government’s military offensive against TPLF leaders, a conflict that may jeopardize political reforms since Abiy took office in 2018.

Abiy, Africa’s youngest leader at 44 who won the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize for a pact with Eritrea, was pictured in battle fatigues meeting military officers in photos tweeted by his official photographer on Wednesday.

He took Ethiopia’s top job after nearly three decades of a TPLF-led national government, which had become increasingly repressive, jailing opponents and banning opposition parties.

Abiy removed Tigrayans from government and security posts, saying they were over-represented for an ethnic group accounting for just 6% of Ethiopia’s population. The military went in when a federal army base was ambushed in Tigray.

ADDIS ABABA BLAST

The TPLF casts their former military comrade and partner in government as bent on dominating them to increase his personal grip over the vast nation of 115 million people, which is split into 10 regions run by different ethnic groups.

Abiy, who hails from the larger Oromo and Amharic ethic groups, calls the Tigrayan leaders criminals opposing national unity and plotting attacks in Addis Ababa and elsewhere.

Federal police blamed the TPLF, without offering proof, for a small blast in the capital on Wednesday that injured an officer lightly. There was no immediate response from the TPLF.

There has been little verifiable information from Mekelle, the highland city of 500,000 people, since it fell on Saturday.

TPLF leaders say they are continuing to fight from surrounding mountainous areas.

“Wars are not like taps that you turn on and then turn off. This is going to be a very long, drawn-out process,” Horn of Africa expert Rashid Abdi told an online forum.

(Reporting by Addis Ababa newsroom, David Lewis in Nairobi, Maggie Fick in Istanbul; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne and Tim Cocks; Editing by Maggie Fick and Alison Williams)

Both sides claim gains in Ethiopia war, Tigrayans accused of massacre

(Reuters) – Ethiopia’s state-appointed rights group accused a Tigrayan youth group on Tuesday of massacring hundreds of civilians as federal and local forces both claimed advances in a three-week war in the country’s mountainous north.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government said enemy soldiers were surrendering as it advanced towards the regional capital, but the Tigrayans reported they were resisting and had destroyed a prestigious army division.

The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission published findings into a Nov. 9 attack in Mai Kadra in southwest Tigray state – first reported by Amnesty International – where it said a youth group called Samri killed at least 600 people of the minority Amhara and Wolkait ethnic groups in the town.

Non-Tigrayans were beaten to death, stabbed, set on fire and strangled with ropes, the report said, though some residents protected neighbors by hiding them in homes. The commission accused local forces of colluding in the massacre.

The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) was not immediately available but has previously denied involvement.

Reuters has been unable to verify statements made by either side since phone and internet connections to Tigray are down and access to the area is strictly controlled.

Since fighting began on Nov. 4, hundreds have died, more than 41,000 refugees have fled to Sudan, and there has been widespread destruction and uprooting of people from homes.

The war has spread to Eritrea, where the Tigrayans have fired rockets, and also affected Somalia where Ethiopia has disarmed several hundred Tigrayans in a peacekeeping force fighting al Qaeda-linked militants.

Abiy’s government said many Tigrayan combatants had responded to an ultimatum to lay down arms before a threatened offensive against Mekelle city, with half a million inhabitants.

The deadline expires on Wednesday.

“Using the government’s 72-hour period, a large number of Tigray militia and special forces are surrendering,” a government taskforce said.

‘TRAGIC CONFLICT’

The battle-hardened TPLF, which had ruled the region of more than 5 million people, gave a different version, saying their troops were keeping federal forces at bay and scoring victories.

Their spokesman Getachew Reda said an important army unit – which he named as the 21st mechanized division – was destroyed in an assault at Raya-Wajirat led by a former commander of that unit now fighting for the TPLF.

The prime minister’s spokeswoman Billene Seyoum denied that.

TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael has disputed the government version that Mekelle is encircled at a roughly 50km (30 mile) distance, telling Reuters the ultimatum was a cover for government forces to regroup after defeats.

The United States – which regards Ethiopia as a powerful ally in a turbulent region – France and Britain were the latest foreign powers to call for peace.

Washington backed African Union (AU) mediation efforts “to end this tragic conflict now”, while Paris and London warned against ethnic discrimination.

The U.N. Security Council was to hold informal talks later on Tuesday over Tigray, according to a U.N. source and an email.

Abiy, who won the Nobel Peace Prize last year for ending a standoff with Eritrea, has said he will not negotiate with the TPLF though he does plan to receive AU envoys.

OFFENSIVE

His predecessor, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, criticized international mediation efforts by “well-intentioned outsiders” that he said obscured the crimes of the TPLF and overestimated their importance in Ethiopian society.

“The key problem in the international community’s approach to Ethiopia is the assumption of moral equivalence, which leads foreign governments to adopt an attitude of false balance and bothsidesism” between the federal and Tigrayan sides, he wrote in Foreign Policy magazine.

Abiy, whose parents are from the larger Oromo and Amhara groups, denies any ethnic overtones to his offensive, saying he is pursuing criminals who ambushed federal forces.

The TPLF says he wants to subdue Tigray to amass power.

Since taking office in 2018, the prime minister has removed many Tigrayans from government and security posts and arrested some on rights abuse and corruption charges, even though he was their former military comrade and coalition partner.

The conflict threatens to destabilize the vast nation of 115 million people from myriad ethnic groups whose struggles for greater resources and power intensified when Abiy took office.

In Geneva, the U.N. human rights chief voiced alarm over reports of tank and artillery build-ups outside Mekelle.

“We have seen an Ethiopian colonel come out and say there will be no mercy. On the other side you have had the TPLF leadership say they are ready to die,” said Michelle Bachelet.

“This is the kind of rhetoric that is extremely worrying and that may provoke or may lead to serious violations of international humanitarian law.”

(Reporting by Addis Ababa newsroom, Omar Mohammed, Nazanine Moshiri, Maggie Fick and Katharine Houreld in Nairobi, Stephanie Nebehay and Emma Farge in Geneva; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by William Maclean and Giles Elgood)

U.S. ends Boeing 737 MAX flight ban after crash probes

By David Shepardson and Eric M. Johnson

WASHINGTON/SEATTLE (Reuters) – After nearly two years of scrutiny, corporate upheaval and a standoff with global regulators, Boeing Co won approval on Wednesday from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration to fly its 737 MAX jet again after two fatal disasters.

The FAA detailed software upgrades and training changes Boeing must make in order for it to resume commercial flights after a 20-month grounding, the longest in commercial aviation history.

The 737 MAX crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia killed 346 people within five months in 2018 and 2019 and triggered a hailstorm of investigations, frayed U.S. leadership in global aviation and cost Boeing some $20 billion.

The U.S. plane maker’s best-selling jet will resume commercial service facing strong headwinds from a resurgent coronavirus pandemic, new European trade tariffs and mistrust of one of the most scrutinized brands in aviation.

Families of the Ethiopian crash victims said in a statement on Wednesday that they felt “sheer disappointment and renewed grief” following the FAA’s decision to return the aircraft to service.

“Our family was broken,” Naoise Ryan, whose 39-year-old husband died aboard Ethiopian Airlines flight 302, said on Tuesday.

The 737 MAX is a re-engined upgrade of a jet first introduced in the 1960s. Single-aisle jets like the MAX and rival Airbus A320neo are workhorses that dominate global fleets and provide a major source of industry profit.

Of the U.S. airlines with 737 MAX jets, American Airlines plans to relaunch the first commercial MAX flight since the grounding on Dec. 29, followed by United Airlines in the first quarter of 2021 and Southwest Airlines in the second quarter next year.

Leading regulators in Europe, Brazil and China must issue their own approvals for their airlines after independent reviews, illustrating how the 737 MAX crashes upended a once U.S.-dominated airline safety system in which nations large and small for decades moved in lock-step with the FAA.

When it does fly, Boeing will be running a 24-hour war room to monitor all MAX flights for issues that could impact the jet’s return, from stuck landing gear to health emergencies, three people familiar with the matter said.

Shares jumped in premarket trading and were on track for their highest level since June.

LONG RUNWAY AHEAD

FAA Administrator Steve Dickson signed an order lifting the flight ban early on Wednesday and the agency released an airworthiness directive detailing the required changes.

“We’ve done everything humanly possible to make sure” these types of crashes do not happen again, Dickson told Reuters, saying he felt “100% confident” in the plane’s safety.

The FAA is requiring new pilot training and software upgrades to deal with a stall-prevention system called MCAS, which in both crashes repeatedly and powerfully shoved down the jet’s nose as pilots struggled to regain control.

The FAA, which has faced accusations of being too close to Boeing in the past, said it would no longer allow Boeing to sign off on the airworthiness of some 450 737 MAXs built and parked during the flight ban. It plans in-person inspections that could take a year or more to complete, prolonging the jets’ delivery.

Boeing is scrambling to keep up maintenance and find new buyers for many of its mothballed 737 MAXs after receiving cancellations from their original buyers. Demand is further sapped by the coronavirus crisis.

Even with all the hurdles, resuming deliveries of the 737 MAX will open up a crucial pipeline of cash for Boeing and hundreds of parts suppliers whose finances were strained by production cuts linked to the jet’s safety ban.

Numerous reports have faulted Boeing and the FAA on the plane’s development. A U.S. House of Representatives report in September said Boeing failed in its design and development of the MAX, and the FAA failed in its oversight and certification.

It also criticized Boeing for withholding crucial information from the FAA, its customers, and pilots including “concealing the very existence of MCAS from 737 MAX pilots.”

The chief executive of Boeing urged staff to speak up whenever they see behavior going against values of safety, quality and integrity. “We have implemented a series of meaningful changes to strengthen the safety practices and culture of our company,” Dave Calhoun told employees in a letter.

The House on Tuesday unanimously passed a bill to reform how the FAA certifies airplanes, while a Senate panel is to consider a similar bill on Wednesday.

Boeing faces lawsuits from crash victim families.

(Reporting by Eric M. Johnson in Seattle, Tracy Rucinski in Chicago, David Shepardson in Washington, Allison Lampert in Montreal and Jamie Freed in Sydney; Editing by Matthew Lewis and Nick Zieminski)

Senate panel to take up FAA aircraft certification reform bill

By David Shepardson

(Reuters) – The U.S. Senate Commerce Committee on Sept. 16 will hold a hearing to consider a bill to strengthen U.S. oversight of aircraft certification following two fatal Boeing Co. 737 MAX crashes.

The measure seeks to eliminate the ability of aircraft makers like Boeing to unduly influence the certification process. It marks the most significant step toward reforms following the 2018 and 2019 crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia that killed 346 people and sparked demands to change how the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approves new airplanes.

Boeing and the FAA did not immediately comment.

U.S. Senate Commerce Committee chair Roger Wicker, a Republican, and ranking member Maria Cantwell, a Democrat, introduced the proposal in June that would grant the FAA new power over the long-standing practice of delegating some certification tasks to aircraft manufacturer employees. It would give the agency authority to hire or remove Boeing employees conducting FAA certification tasks and allow the FAA to appoint safety advisers.

Boeing is still working to win regulatory approvals to resume commercial service of its 737 MAX since the plane was grounded worldwide in March 2019, plunging the Chicago-based company into a crisis since compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Boeing also faces lawsuits and an ongoing criminal probe.

The Senate legislation would grant new whistleblower protections to workers at airplane and parts manufacturers. It would also require the FAA to create a new safety reporting system for employees to detail concerns anonymously.

While victims’ family members applauded proposed reforms, they are also demanding that critical aircraft systems – like the MCAS flight control system linked to both crashes – be approved by the FAA, not just Boeing, and that manufacturers be required to re-certify new aircraft derived from earlier models.

Representative Peter DeFazio, who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, told Reuters in July he planned to introduce FAA certification reform legislation in September, saying the Senate bill was a good start but did not go far enough.

(Reporting by David Shepardson, Editing by Franklin Paul and Chizu Nomiyama)