BREAKING: Ethiopia up in flames as Tigrayan forces gain ground; state of emergency declared

The two largest rebel groups fighting Ethiopia’s government have “linked up” on a front line about 230 miles north of the capital this week, according to their spokesmen, both of whom said that as the war nears its one-year mark, a peaceful solution to the conflict was off the table.

As the fighting intensified, the government Tuesday declared a six-month state of emergency and local officials in Addis Ababa urged the capital’s 5 million residents to register their weapons and prepare to safeguard their neighborhoods.

“Our country is facing a grave danger to its existence, sovereignty and unity. And we can’t dispel this danger through the usual law enforcement systems and procedures,” Justice Minister Gedion Timothewos said at a state media briefing, Reuters reported.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed had issued a broader call to arms on Sunday, saying it was every citizen’s duty to join the war effort, and promising victory. His statement echoed a similar general call for people and resources from the Amhara regional government, north of the capital, where fighting has been concentrated in recent weeks.

President Biden announced on Tuesday that Ethiopia would lose duty-free access to U.S. markets under a previous trade agreement, citing “gross violations of internationally recognized human rights.”

“The situation is getting worse and frankly we are alarmed,” Jeffrey Feltman, the U.S. special envoy to the region, said Tuesday, adding that a cease-fire or other forms of de-escalation “don’t seem anywhere near.”

Forces from the Tigray region as well as fighters with the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) claim to have seized key strategic towns in Amhara along the highway to Addis Ababa over the past few days. On state media, government spokespeople have denied losing any territory but did not respond to requests for comment.

“We are both moving forward with a unified coordinated military strategy to conclude this war as quickly as possible to prevent further bloodshed,” said OLA spokesman Odaa Tarbii. “This will become clearer over the coming weeks.”

Neither he nor Getachew Reda, spokesman for the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), would say whether marching on Addis Ababa, which hosts the headquarters of the African Union, was part of their strategy to wrest control of the country from Abiy’s government, though Getachew said, “I can’t rule out marching to Addis together.”

The government has heavily restricted access for journalists, making independent confirmation of territorial claims difficult. The northern region of Tigray, where the war began in November 2020, has been in a near-total communications blackout — as well as being blockaded from the outside world.

Humanitarian agencies operating in Tigray warn that a large-scale famine is imminent. The United Nations said aid supplies haven’t entered the region since Oct. 18.

The war has pitted the Ethiopian government and aligned forces from neighboring Eritrea, as well as militias from the Amhara region, against the TPLF and other Tigrayan militias. The TPLF was formed as a guerrilla army to fight against Ethiopia’s former communist regime. After emerging victorious, it consolidated power and controlled the country for nearly three decades, often brutally suppressing dissent.

Abiy became prime minister in 2018, promising a fairer division of power among Ethiopia’s largest ethnic groups as well as a move toward a unified Ethiopian identity, rather than the ethnic federalism favored by the TPLF. He also forged a peace agreement with Eritrea, which sees the TPLF as its archenemy after a bloody war between the two countries in 1998.

The government claims it was drawn into the current conflict by a belligerent TPLF that was fomenting ethnic conflicts around the country as a way to undermine Abiy’s rule. After decades in power, however, Tigrayans made up a large portion of Ethiopia’s military, especially in the upper ranks, and the rupture caused by the fighting has destabilized the armed forces.

That military might has given Tigrayans, despite making up about 6 percent of Ethiopia’s population, outsize influence. The claims of “linking up” with the OLA, the armed wing of a major opposition party claiming to represent the interests of the country’s largest ethnic group, the Oromo, would represent a historic alliance between two groups that previously were rivals.

Both the TPLF and OLA were designated terrorist organizations by the government soon after the war began.

Odaa, the OLA spokesman, claimed the group had in recent weeks gained control of towns in central and southern Oromia, most of rural western Oromia, and three towns in the Amhara region near the front line, where Tigrayan forces have been pushing south toward Addis Ababa. He also said the OLA was able to recruit tens of thousands of fighters in recent months.

All sides in the conflict — including the Ethiopian military, the Eritrean military, and Tigrayan, Amhara and Oromo militias — have been accused of atrocities, including the killing of civilians. Some of the most serious accusations of mass rapes and door-to-door executions have been leveled against the Eritreans.

The first independent U.N.-led investigation into possible war crimes is expected to be released Wednesday, but multiple diplomatic officials with knowledge of its contents, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the authors’ access was hampered by the government and ongoing fighting. While the toll of the conflict is unknown, the officials put it in the tens of thousands.

The government on Monday accused the TPLF of having “summarily executed more than 100 youth residents” in Kombolcha, one of the towns the TPLF claimed to have seized recently, but provided no details about the killings, while also denying the town had been taken. Getachew, the TPLF spokesman, dismissed the allegation and said the TPLF would continue advancing until the “deadly siege on Tigray was lifted.”

Millions of Tigrayans are dependent on food aid, the delivery of which the government has also strictly limited, at times accusing aid organizations of helping the TPLF. Hundreds of thousands are displaced either within Tigray or in neighboring Sudan.

As the fighting spread outside Tigray, hundreds of thousands more have been displaced in the neighboring Amhara and Afar regions.

Last month, after one of the Ethiopian government’s numerous airstrikes on the Tigray capital, Mekelle, almost coincided with the landing of a humanitarian plane, the United Nations indefinitely suspended flights to the region. The TPLF claims the airstrikes killed numerous civilians, which the government denies.

The limiting of the humanitarian response and apparent targeting of noncombatants throughout the conflict have drawn sustained condemnation from Western powers that once saw Abiy as a democratizing influence on Ethiopia and the region. Abiy was awarded the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize for his overtures to Eritrea. In retrospect, one Western official said, that peace deal “may have been the start of an era of war in the region.”

The U.S. government has leveled visa sanctions against Ethiopian and Eritrean civilian and military officials and recently expanded a policy to “deny licenses and other approvals for exports of defense articles and defense services” to Ethiopia.

Source: The Washington Post