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Ethiopia ‘at war’ with leaders of Tigray region, military declares

Stark declaration heightens fears of civil war as both sides show scant will to seek peace

by Reuters Nov 6th 2020 · 3 min read
Ethiopia ‘at war’ with leaders of Tigray region, military declares

Ethiopia’s military has declared it has been forced into an “unexpected and aimless war” with its Tigray region and has mobilised its troops, dealing a seemingly fatal blow to international hopes of averting a conflict.

The stark declaration came as Tigray asserted that fighter jets had bombed areas around its capital, with the region’s president Debretsion Gebremichael telling reporters that “we are in position to defend ourselves from enemies that waged war on the Tigray region … we are ready to be martyrs”.

The escalations in violence and rhetoric in the growing conflict between the central government and ruling Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) further cement the path to what many fear could become a bloody civil war that threatens to destabilise the already turbulent Horn of Africa.

Troops from around the country will be deployed to the northern region, Ethiopia's army deputy chief Birhanu Jula told reporters, likely looking to assuage fears fighting could ignite across the country as he insisted: “The war will not come to the centre, it will end there.”

While Ethiopia’s government has not commented on the bombing allegations, they come a day after prime minister Abiy Ahmed told the nation the military would carry out further operations this week in response to an alleged deadly TPLF attack on a military base.

The TPLF has denied attacking the base and accused Mr Abiy of using it as justification for military deployment, amid reports of skirmishes in the well-armed region, which houses much of the nation’s armed forces and military equipment due to its location next to Eritrea.

Mr Abiy, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last year for resolving the decades-old border conflict with Eritrea and enacting sweeping democratic reforms, now faces his greatest challenge in holding together Africa’s second most populous nation.

A vastly diverse country, many among its patchwork population of 110 million people harbour old ethnic and other grievances, some of which have been reignited by Mr Abiy’s political reforms amid charges that leaders, notably in Tigray, were unfairly targeted in corruption cases and removed from federal government roles.

Unrest has grown since the TPLF – previously the main partner in Ethiopia’s governing coalition for nearly 30 years – decided to push ahead with elections in September despite postponement across the rest of the country due to the coronavirus pandemic, prompting both governments to declare the other “illegitimate and unconstitutional”.

In October, central government voted to cut off contact with Tigray and to withhold budget support to the region.

World news in picturesShow all 50Describing the contested attack on a military base, allegedly to raid extra firepower, as “the last red line”, Mr Ayip announced military operations this week, at which point communications and other services disappeared in the Tigray region.US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo seemed to support the federal government's account of events, saying America was “deeply concerned” by the reports of TPLF’s alleged attack, as he urged “immediate action to restore the peace and de-escalate tensions”.But former US diplomat Payton Knopf doubted whether “anyone can credibly assert who attacked who first”, also questioning why the well-armed Tigray forces would initiate a conflict by raiding a command post, saying: “They're not lacking for weaponry.”

Amid fears the fighting could spread, the TPLF invited other members of Ethiopia’s security forces to join it in “opposing the colonel Abiy's regime” as both sides made as-yet-unverified claims that troops from the other side are flocking to their causes. The Tigray leader asserted that fighting is also taking place in an area bordering the Amhara region, far from where the original clash was reported, saying: “They are surrounding us with their forces.”The TPLF has also accused Eritrea of teaming up with Ethiopia's federal government in this week's offensive.

Reuters reported sources as saying that efforts to encourage talks were underway behind the scenes, pushed by the African Union, but that the initiative was being resisted by the government which insists it must eliminate a threat posed by the TPLF.Aid organisations and human rights groups are pleading for communications links to be restored and warning of a humanitarian disaster if hundreds of thousands of people flee fighting in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Given the strength of Tigray's security forces, the conflict could well be protracted,” the International Crisis Group warned on Thursday.

“Tigray has a large paramilitary force and a well-drilled local militia, thought to number perhaps 250,000 troops combined.”It appears unlikely that Ethiopian forces would quickly oust the TPLF leadership, the group said, and even then loyalists could mount “sustained resistance.” They called for “immediate, concerted mediation - local, regional and international”.Additional reporting by AP

last updated: 2020-11-06@21:11