US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will travel to Ethiopia next week to push forward a fragile peace process, the State Department said Friday, on the highest-level US visit since the brutal civil war shook ties between the longtime allies.

Blinken will also pay the first visit by a top US diplomat to Niger to discuss security cooperation in the Sahel, where Russia has been making growing inroads through its Wagner mercenary force.

Blinken will hold talks Wednesday and Thursday in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa with officials, civil society and humanitarian groups on the November 2 deal that halted the two-year war that has killed more people than Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Under the agreement, brokered in the South African capital Pretoria by the African Union with US participation, the rebel Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) said it would disarm in the face of an onslaught by the government, which agreed to restore basic services in a region that has suffered dire shortages.

But access remains heavily restricted, making it impossible to assess the situation on the ground, and violence and rights concerns have flared elsewhere in Ethiopia.

The United States has put the death toll at 500,000 while former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, who negotiated for the African Union, put it as high as 600,000, which would make the war one of the deadliest of the 21st century despite the greater spotlight on Ukraine.

Blinken has alleged crimes against humanity in the course of the war, angering Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's government, which has warned that a UN-backed probe into abuses would undermine the peace process.

- Incentives for peace -

Abiy won the Nobel Peace Prize for making peace with historic rival Eritrea and was once seen by the United States as part of a generation of dynamic new democratic leaders in Africa.

The war and allegations of abuses -- including the withholding of food -- have badly strained relations with the United States, which suspended Ethiopia's right to duty-free exports under a key trade pact, although Abiy participated in December in President Joe Biden's Africa summit in Washington.

Cameron Hudson, an Africa expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said there was an active debate within the Biden administration on whether to patch up with Ethiopia, the continent's second most populous nation and home to the African Union, and those who believe that human rights concerns outweigh any geopolitical advantage.

"This is a bit of a fact-finding mission. There is this debate happening within the administration and I think Blinken needs to see for himself," Hudson said.

Hudson expected that Blinken would offer better ties as an incentive for moving forward on the peace process, including increasing humanitarian access in Tigray.

"What Addis is looking for is whether Washington is willing to say, enough has been done and we can normalize the bilateral relationship -- and that means turning on the financial spigot by restarting international lending assistance and assisting with the country's increasing debt crisis," Hudson said.

Abiy ordered the offensive after the TPLF, once Ethiopia's dominant power, attacked military installations.

A remaining sticking point is the role of Eritrea, whose authoritarian regime has tense ties with the TPLF and is accused of atrocities in Tigray.

US officials have hailed what they saw as Eritrean troop movements out of Tigray, but it is unclear to what extent the forces remain there.

The Biden administration has been looking to increase its presence in Africa in the face of inroads by China and increasingly Russia, which is seeking diplomatic support in the developing world against Western sanctions over its invasion of Ukraine.

In Niger, Blinken will meet President Mohamed Bazoum as well as young people from conflict zones.