The Ethiopian armed forces are “fully in command” of the city of Mekele after an offensive on Saturday against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), according to A declaration by the Prime Minister of the country, Abiy Ahmed Ali.
The assault on the city marks the latest clash in a conflict between the Ethiopian federal government and the TPLF, an Ethiopian political party, which began earlier this month when the TPLF launched what it called a preemptive strike against a federal military installation in Tigray, a region. in northern Ethiopia. The federal government said the party hoped “lootThe base, and responded to the attack with a full military offensive which is now pushing the country into a massive humanitarian crisis.
Mekele, with a population of around half a million, is the capital of Tigray, which is governed by the TPLF. The group dominated national politics in Ethiopia until Abiy became Prime Minister in 2018 and ushered in a series of reforms – including the dismissal of TPLF officials accused of corruption.
Last Sunday, Abiy delivered an ultimatum demanding the peaceful surrender of the TPLF leaders “within the next 72 hours, recognizing that you are at a point of no return”. That deadline has not expired and Abiy responded with Saturday’s offensive.
According to the Washington Post, “A communications cut-off and media access bans across much of Tigray made it nearly impossible to verify government claims,” and relatively little is known about how the battle for Mekele was fought.
A major question is to what extent civilians have been protected from the fighting – and the details on this are disputed. TPLF chief Debretsion Gebremichael said the town, including civilian areas, was under “heavy bombardment” on Saturday before it was captured by federal troops, and aid groups reportedly confirmed to the Agence France-Presse press service that the artillery was used.
These reports led US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Tibor Nagy to Tweeter that “the fighting and bombardments in the Mekele region are a very serious concern” on Saturday morning.
The fighting and bombing in the Mekele region are of great concern. We urge the immediate end of the conflict and the restoration of peace in Tigray. Civilians must be protected and humanitarian access must be provided to help those in need.
– Tibor Nagy (@AsstSecStateAF) November 28, 2020
But a spokesperson for Abiy disputed the claim, tell the guard that “the Ethiopian National Defense Force is not responsible for bombing its own city and its own people.”
In a statement posted on Twitter, Abiy also claimed that the Ethiopian National Defense Forces had “[undertaken] the operation with precision and diligence for the citizens by ensuring that civilians are not targeted. “
“The people of the Tigray region have provided unwavering support and cooperation to the Ethiopian National Defense Force in all corners,” he said.
Humanitarian groups said they did not have the access necessary to verify Abiy’s claims – although the federal government on Thursday ordered the establishment of aid routes throughout Tigray. The United Nations has warned that 6 million people in Tigray could soon be without sufficient food and water.
Abiy’s role in the crisis is particularly remarkable given that he won the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize after making a surprising peace with neighboring Eritrea. It turned out to be unable to defuse increasing tensions with the TPLF, however – and now this new conflict has spread to Eritrea as well, with the TPLF launching a missile attack in the Eritrean capital of Asmara on November 14.
TPLF chief Debretsion told The Associated Press that Asmara was a “legitimate military target” because Eritrea had sent troops to Ethiopia’s Tigray region – but it is not known if this is indeed the case. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo condemned the attack in harsh terms last week.
“We are deeply concerned by this blatant attempt by the TPLF to cause regional instability by extending its conflict with the Ethiopian authorities to neighboring countries,” Pompeo said in a statement. “We also continue to denounce the TPLF missile attacks of November 13 against Bahir Dar and Gondar airports in Ethiopia.”
It is clear, however, that tens of thousands of refugees were forced to flee the fighting in Tigray – and that even before Saturday’s offensive, violence between the TPLF and Ethiopian federal forces was causing widespread humanitarian catastrophe.
Conflict creates ‘large-scale’ humanitarian crisis in region
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) warned early last week that the flow of refugees out of Ethiopia was “rapidly overwhelming the humanitarian response capacity on the ground” in neighboring Sudan, and the agency said in a November 17 statement that no less than 4,000 people crossed the border a day.
From Saturday, according to Al Jazeera, around 43,000 refugees have already entered Sudan and over a million have been displaced by the fighting.
Atrocities have also been widely reported as the conflict continues. According to the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, Tigrayan security forces withdrawing from Ethiopian federal troops slaughtered at least 600 civilians from other ethnic groups in early November, and the EHRC says the death toll could be even higher.
On the other side of the conflict, refugees in Sudan told the Washington Post of a “genocide against the Tigray people”.
“They are killing people madly,” said one refugee. “We saw a lot of deaths on the way. We didn’t bring any food or clothes – we just escaped to save our lives and the lives of our children.
According to UNHCR, as many as 100,000 Eritrean refugees living in the Tigray region could also be displaced once again by this conflict, further exacerbating the crisis. And getting help and services for these refugees has would have been practically made impossible by fighting.
“The humanitarian situation resulting from this crisis is developing rapidly,” UN spokesman Babar Baloch said last week. “UNHCR reiterates its call for peace and urges all parties to respect the safety and security of all civilians in Tigray.”
Last week, Abiy promised to “reintegrate our Ethiopian compatriots who are fleeing to neighboring countries” – although it is not yet clear how exactly this will be accomplished. Saturday, however, he said the federal government planned to move immediately to a restorative phase: “Our goal now will be to rebuild the region and provide humanitarian aid while the federal police apprehend the TPLF clique.