Addis Ababa, November 19
US President-elect Joe Biden’s foreign policy adviser on Thursday urged an end to fighting and protection for civilians in north Ethiopia, where federal troops are battling rebels in a war rocking the Horn of Africa and sending refugees fleeing.
“Deeply concerned about the humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia, reports of targeted ethnic violence, and the risk to regional peace and security,” tweeted Antony Blinken.
The conflict in Tigray region has killed hundreds and possibly thousands, sent 30,000 refugees into Sudan and called into question whether Prime Minister Abiy Ahmen, Africa’s youngest leader and last year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, can hold together the nation together.
Ethiopia is a federation of states run by separate ethnic groups and the war pits the central government against one of the most heavily militarised regions. The northern Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) effectively ruled Ethiopia for decades as the strongest force in a multi-ethnic coalition, until Abiy took power two years ago. Refugees from the fighting say militias from neighbouring Amhara state, which has a border dispute with Tigray, are also backing government troops.
The country is a major US ally whose soldiers serve in peacekeeping missions in South Sudan and Somalia. Its military and intelligence services are among the most capable in Africa and regularly work alongside the US personnel.
“The TPLF and Ethiopian authorities should take urgent steps to end the conflict, enable humanitarian access, and protect civilians,” added Blinken, a veteran diplomat and longtime Biden confidant.
He is expected to play a senior role as the incoming US administration looks to jettison President Donald Trump’s “America First” agenda and build up relations with allies.
On the ground, Ethiopia accused Tigrayan forces of atrocities. The TPLF leader said his soldiers were still holding the important town of Axum, though they had lost Shire as federal troops sought to close in on the state capital Mekelle.
“Shire has fallen three days back but Axum is with us, but there is an army sent to control Axum … there is a fight,” Debretsion Gebremichael said in a text to Reuters.
There was no immediate response from the government.
Assertions by all sides have been impossible to verify because internet and phone connections to Tigray have been suspended and the government has restricted access.
An Ethiopian government statement referred to reports of ethnic killings in the town of Mai Kadra, documented by human rights group Amnesty International last week. Survivors told Amnesty researchers that militias affiliated to the Tigray government killed scores or even hundreds of civilians.
“As we enter the final phase of law enforcement operations against this group, we would like to remind the leaders of this group that the atrocities that have been committed by their forces and loyalists in places like Maykadra constitute serious crimes both under Ethiopian and international law,” it said, using an alternative spelling. There was no immediate response from the TPLF.
Ethiopian federal forces are trying to advance along main roads from the south and the northwest of Mekelle and had advanced to around 200 km (124 miles) from the Tigrayan capital, a diplomat monitoring the conflict said.
The conflict has embroiled Ethiopia’s neighbours. The TPLF fired rockets at neighbouring Eritrea last weekend. Tens of thousands of refugees have streamed into Sudan. Ethiopia has taken weapons away from 200 to 300 ethnic Tigrayan soldiers in its peacekeeping contingent in Somalia.
Tigray civilians in Sudan last week told Reuters that they were targeted by government-affiliated militia because of their ethnicity. Their claims were impossible to verify.
Tigrayans represent about 5 per cent of the population of 115 million. They dominated national leadership between 1991 and 2018, before Abiy, whose parents are ethnic Oromo and Amhara, took the premiership and began opening up both the economy and a repressive political system.
He won last year’s Nobel Peace Prize for a peace pact with Eritrea but his reputation has come into question after recent curbs on the media, arrests of opponents and his hard line towards Tigray despite international appeals for talks.
He denies any targeting of civilians or ethnic undertones to the Tigray offensive, saying it is a law-and-order operation necessary to maintain unity. Reuters