The Trump administration has invited the foreign ministers of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan to Washington to discuss a giant hydropower dam project on Ethiopia's Blue Nile, the focus of an escalating feud between Addis Ababa and Cairo over water resources.
The invitation letter obtained by VOA was extended by U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin Oct. 21 to the three countries and to David Malpass, president of the World Bank Group.
A World Bank spokesperson said in a statement Malpass "plans to participate, assuming that all three countries (Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan) are fully involved and also participate."
Egypt, which has long sought outside help to mediate the talks, has accepted the meeting, scheduled to be held at Mnuchin's office Nov. 6.
A senior administration official confirmed that during the U.N. General Assembly in New York in September, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi asked President Donald Trump to mediate the conflict caused by the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.
Cairo considers the issue a national security matter. Without a settlement with Ethiopia, the construction of the massive upstream Nile dam could threaten Egypt's source of fresh water.
Offer to el-Sissi
The administration official said that Trump had offered el-Sissi "the good offices of Mnuchin."
This would indicate that the Treasury Department would be the point of contact in the matter, instead of the State Department, which has its own Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, an agency tasked with engaging foreign governments on transboundary water management through its Office of Conservation and Water.
The State Department bureau has been engaging with parties to the dam project since 2011. It has repeatedly urged tripartite negotiations to resolve the matter and stated to Egypt as recently as last month that any consideration of technical assistance would be conditioned upon agreements resulting from the tripartite process.
The bureau was not involved in the invitation by Mnuchin to begin talks.
Trump's appointment of Mnuchin to mediate is a shift from the administration's previous policy, which, as recently as earlier this month, was one of not inserting itself in the talks but supporting "Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan's ongoing negotiations to reach a cooperative, sustainable, and mutually beneficial agreement on filling and operating the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam."
The Treasury Department has not responded to a request for comment by VOA.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed met with el-Sissi on Wednesday on the sidelines of the first Russia-Africa Summit in Sochi, Russia.
Speaking to reporters in Amharic after his meeting with el-Sissi, Abiy said he welcomed political mediation from external actors.
"There is no problem if we do the political discussion with anyone. The technical discussion has already been initiated, and they have gone five rounds and will continue," Abiy said.
This appeared to be a softening of Ethiopia's position, which is to keep the talks at the tripartite level. Last year, Ethiopia rejected Egypt's call for World Bank arbitration.
The $5 billion dam, which is about 70% complete, will provide much-needed electricity to Ethiopia's population of 100 million. In a question-and-answer session with Parliament in Addis Ababa two days earlier, Abiy said that only negotiation could resolve the deadlock with Cairo. But he warned that if there was a need to go to war with Egypt over the dam, his country could ready millions of people.
Pro-government media in Egypt have cast the issue as a threat that could warrant military action.
Ethiopia and Egypt have been negotiating for years, but one sticking point remains the rate at which Ethiopia will draw water out of the Nile to fill the dam's reservoir. Cairo fears that filling the reservoir behind the dam too quickly could reduce its share of water from the Nile.
El-Sissi wants guarantees that Abiy's government will not fill the dam without an agreement.
The latest talks collapsed earlier this month.
The Russian news agency TASS reported that Moscow was prepared to act as a mediator on the conflict.
"We have excellent relations with Addis Ababa and Cairo. We know this subject. We discussed it many times," Mikhail Bogdano, Russia's special representative for the Middle East and Africa, said on the sidelines of the Russia-Africa Summit.
Moscow is seeking to restore its influence in Africa, which has declined since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
VOA's Salem Solomon and Cindy Saine contributed to this report.