More than 100 killed in latest ethnic massacre in Ethiopia


More than 100 people have been killed in the latest massacre along ethnic lines in western Ethiopia, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission said Wednesday, and the toll is expected to rise.

The attack in Metekel zone of Benishangul-Gumuz region occurred a day after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed visited the region and spoke about the need to end such massacres. Ethnic tensions are a major challenge as he tries to promote national unity in a country with more than 80 ethnic groups.

The attacks are separate from the deadly conflict in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region, where Ethiopian forces and allied regional forces began fighting Tigray regional forces in early November.

Some people in remote villages remained encircled and under threat on Wednesday evening, with the death toll thought to be above 200, Belete Molla, head of the National Movement of Amhara political party, asserted after speaking with residents.

Amnesty International, which spoke with five survivors, said members of the ethnic Gumuz community attacked the homes of ethnic Amhara, Oromo and Shinasha, setting them on fire and stabbing and shooting residents. The Gumuz see minorities as “settlers,” the rights group said.

Dozens of people are still unaccounted for, Amnesty said.

The ruling party in the region, the Benishangul-Gumuz Prosperity Party, said in a statement that armed bandits had committed a “horrifying crime.”

Amharas are the second most populous ethnic group in Ethiopia, and they have been targeted repeatedly in recent weeks. One rebel attack on Nov. 1 in the far western Oromia region killed at least 54 people, according to Amnesty International.

An attack in the Benishangul-Gumuz region in early October killed at least 14 civilians, according to a security official. It followed similar deadly attacks in September that also displaced over 300 people, leading the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission to say it was deeply alarmed.



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More than 100 people have been killed by gunmen in western Ethiopia, a human rights group says



Gunmen killed more than 100 people in an attack in western Ethiopia, the national human rights body said, the latest in a series of deadly assaults in the area.

The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, a government-affiliated but independent body, said in a statement late on Wednesday that “more than 100 people have been killed in fires and shooting perpetrated by armed men” in the Benishangul-Gumuz region.

There is no known link between the violence in Benishangul-Gumuz and military operations in northern Tigray region, which have killed thousands and sent more than 50,000 people fleeing over the border into Sudan

The commission said survivors had “disturbing photo evidence” of the attack on sleeping residents in Metekel zone, which began in the early hours of Wednesday and continued until afternoon.

Ethnic violence over land and resources has been a persistent problem in Ethiopia under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, often seen as a backlash to the Nobel Peace prize winner’s efforts to lead democratic reforms in Africa’s second-most populous nation.

Five officials were arrested on suspicion of playing a part in the trouble, the regional government said in a statement without giving further details of possible charges.

At least 36 survivors were being treated for bullet and arrow wounds in a hospital about 90 kilometres from where the attack occurred, the commission said.

“In addition to the damage inflicted on people’s lives and bodies, crops have been set alight. One victim told us he saw 18 such fires,” the statement said.

There were no security forces in the area at the time, the commission said.

Some of the victims said they knew their assailants, the commission said, adding that humanitarian aid should be sent to assist the displaced and wounded.

The region is home to ethnic Shinasha, Oromo and Amhara, the commission said, the latter two the largest and second largest ethnic minorities, respectively, in Ethiopia.

Some Amhara leaders have asserted ownership of the Metekel zone, claims that have inflamed tensions with ethnic Gumuz in the area.

Ethnic attacks

Mr Abiy visited the Metekel zone on Tuesday and met residents at a town-hall style meeting, posting on Twitter: “The desire by enemies to divide Ethiopia along ethnic & religious lines still exists.”

Western Ethiopia has suffered a spate of horrific attacks in recent months.

At least 34 people were slaughtered in an attack on a bus in the same Metekel zone in November.

Twelve others were killed in a separate attack in the zone in October, and 15 died in a similar assault in late September.

In October, Abiy told lawmakers that fighters responsible for those killings were receiving training and shelter in neighbouring Sudan and that Khartoum’s assistance was needed to stabilise the area.

Opposition politicians, notably from the Amhara ethnic group, have sounded the alarm about what they say is a targeted campaign by ethnic Gumuz militias against ethnic Amhara and Agew living in Metekel.

They claimed at the time that more than 150 civilians had been killed in the attacks, figures that could not be independently verified..





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United Nations alarmed’ by Ethiopia returning refugees who fled fighting in Tigray


Ethiopia’s Government said it is returning thousands of refugees who ran from camps in its Tigray region as war swept through, putting them on buses back to the border area with Eritrea, the country the refugees originally fled.

It’s a “disturbing” and “alarming” move, according to the United Nations, which does not have access to the camps.

The news came as the United States said it believes Eritrean troops are active in Ethiopia, which it called a “grave development”.

“We are aware of credible reports of Eritrean military involvement in Tigray,” a State Department spokesperson said in an email.

Late last month, community members in Australia said they feared at least 50 Australians were stuck in the conflict zone.

Ethiopia’s Government said its completed military offensive against the now-fugitive Tigray regional government “was not a direct threat” to the 96,000 “misinformed” Eritrean refugees — even as international aid groups said four of their staffers had been killed, at least one in a refugee camp there.

The refugees are being taken from the capital Addis Ababa back to two camps they had fled from during a month of fighting between the military and a rebellious regional force because it is now safe and stable in Tigray, the Government said in a statement.

“The Government is safely returning those refugees to their respective camps.”

But United Nations officials have expressed concern about reports of continued clashes in the region.

“We have not been informed by the Government or any other authorities or other partners about a planned relocation,” Babar Baloch, spokesman for the United Nations refugee agency, said at a news conference in Geneva.

A girl in an orange dress clutching a notebook to her chest, surrounded by other children in a white tent.
A Tigray refugee girl holds her notebook in a refugee camp in Sudan.(AP: Nariman El-Mofty)

He called the reports “alarming”, adding: “While we cannot speculate at this time, any refoulement would be absolutely unacceptable.”

Refoulement is a technical term that refers to forcing refugees to return to the country they fled from.

“The recent groups coming from areas deeper inside Tigray are arriving weak and exhausted, some reporting they spent two weeks on the run inside Ethiopia as they made their way to the border,” Mr Baloch said.

Without access in Ethiopia, he said, “we are unable to verify these disturbing reports”.

Reports of aid workers killed

Ethiopian forces take control of Tigray region's capital
Ethiopian forces have spent the past month advancing on the Tigray region.(News Video)

Communications and transport links to Tigray remain so challenging that the International Rescue Committee said it was still trying to confirm the details around the killing of an employee in the Hitsats refugee camp in Shire town, the base of humanitarian operations for the refugee camps.

Separately, the Danish Refugee Council said three staffers who worked as guards at a project site were killed last month. It was not clear where they were killed, but the group also supports the Eritrean refugees.

Frustration remains among humanitarian organisations as Tigray remains largely sealed off from the outside world five weeks after fighting erupted between Ethiopia’s Government and the Tigray one following a months-long power struggle.

A map of the Tigray region in northern Ethiopia
Conflict in Tigray has forced hundreds of thousands to flee.(AP: F Duckett)

“Suggestions that humanitarian assistance is impeded due to active military combat in several cities and surrounding areas within the Tigray region is untrue and undermines the critical work undertaken by the National Defence Forces to stabilise the region,” the prime minister’s office said, adding that sporadic gunfire should “not be misconstrued as active conflict”.

The Ethiopian and Tigray governments each regard the other as illegitimate.

Some 6 million people live in Tigray, and about 1 million are now thought to be displaced.

This week, Ethiopia’s Government said its forces shot at and briefly detained UN staffers conducting their first security assessment in Tigray, a crucial step in delivering aid.

Ethiopia said they had broken through checkpoints in trying to go where they were not allowed.

Meanwhile, nearly 50,000 Ethiopians have fled to Sudan as refugees and now shelter in a remote region with few resources.

AP/Reuters



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Nearly 100,00 refugees in Ethiopia in ‘desperate need’ of help as food runs out


The United Nations on Tuesday pleaded with Ethiopia to allow aid to reach refugee camps in Tigray, where nearly 100,000 people from neighbouring Eritrea are thought to have run out of food.

The UN refugee agency UNHCR said the refugees, in four camps inside the border region, were in “desperate need” of help and currently out of reach.

People who fled the conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region wait for UNHCR to distribute blankets at Hamdayet Transition Center, eastern Sudan.

AP

“Concerns are growing by the hour,” UNHCR spokesman Babar Baloch told reporters in Geneva.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered troops into Tigray on 4 November following alleged attacks by Tigray People’s Liberation Front forces on federal military camps in the northern region.

Mr Abiy, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last year, claimed victory on Saturday. Thousands have died so far and tens of thousands have fled into neighbouring Sudan.

UNHCR has had no humanitarian access to the refugee camps in Tigray since the start of the unrest.

It is thought that stocks that were delivered beforehand to the refugees, many of whom have fled Eritrea’s authoritarian government, would not last beyond the start of this week.

“The camps will have now run out of food supplies, making hunger and malnutrition a real danger – a warning we have been issuing since the conflict began,” Mr Baloch said.

“UNHCR appeals to the government of Ethiopia to continue to fulfil its responsibility in hosting and protecting Eritrean refugees and allow humanitarians to access people who are now desperately in need.”

The four camps, which have been in place for more than a decade, shelter some 96,000 refugees.

Mr Baloch also voiced alarm at unconfirmed reports of attacks, abductions and forced recruitment at the camps.

Meanwhile in Sudan, nearly 46,000 refugees from Ethiopia have now been registered, Mr Baloch said, including more than 2,500 on Friday.

He said newly arrived refugees had reported seeing more checkpoints on roads from Ethiopia to Sudan, forcing them to take other routes.

UNHCR and its partners launched a plan at the weekend to provide urgent life-saving assistance including shelter, water and food, at a cost of $147 million, to meet the needs of up to 100,000 refugees over the next six months.



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Ethiopia Claims Victory in Tigray Conflict After Shelling Restive Region’s Capital


ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — Ethiopia claimed victory in its conflict with the restive region of Tigray on Saturday, after a daylong series of artillery strikes against the regional capital, a city of half a million people.

With communications shut off, there was no way to independently confirm the government’s claim, and the leadership of Tigray had vowed earlier in the day to mount a stiff resistance to the government assault.

The shelling of the city, Mekelle, came two days after Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, had ordered the start of what he called the third and final phase of an operation aimed at removing the northern state’s ruling Tigray People’s Liberation Front, until recently the dominant power in the national government.

On Saturday evening, Ethiopia’s state broadcaster reported that Mekelle was now “under control” of the central government and that federal forces in the city are “searching all suspected areas the junta might be hiding,” referring to the T.P.L.F.

“I am pleased to share that we have completed and ceased the military operations in the Tigray region,” Mr. Abiy posted to Twitter Saturday night. “Our focus now will be on rebuilding the region and providing humanitarian assistance while federal police apprehend the T.P.L.F. clique.”

Earlier on Saturday, the leadership of the T.P.L.F., whose decades-long political and economic clout has waned considerably since Mr. Abiy took office in 2018, vowed not to surrender and called upon local citizens to resist the army.

“We are fighting in respect to our right to self-determination and self-rule,” the T.P.L.F. leader, Debretsion Gebremichael, said in a text message on Saturday, confirming heavy shelling on the city throughout the day.

”Abiy will not be able to arrest T.P.L.F.’s members,” he said. “They will die with their belief. Give in? You have to understand we’ll continue fighting as long as they are in our land.”

Even if the government’s control of the capital is verified, analysts have warned that its military could still face a long and brutal guerrilla war with the T.P.L.F., which has a large and heavily armed militia.

Before Saturday’s shelling, many of Mekelle’s residents had begun fleeing to rural areas, fearing they could be caught in the crossfire in the central government’s battle with the local governing party,

There were no immediate news of casualties or specific targets hit by Saturday’s offensive. With access to the region blocked, there have been few reliable reports about the impact of the fighting since Mr. Abiy launched the military offensive just over three weeks ago.

About 40,000 refugees from the region have crossed into neighboring Sudan, according to the United Nations, and hundreds of people have been reported to have died in the fighting.

The central government’s military operation in the Tigray region began on Nov. 4, after Mr. Abiy accused the T.P.L.F. of attacking a government defense post and trying to steal artillery and military equipment.

The T.P.L.F. has said its forces had pre-emptively moved to take over strategic military assets after seeing federal army units move north in the days leading up to the conflict.

The two sides have been engaged in a long-simmering feud, which intensified in September when Tigray held parliamentary elections, even though they had been postponed by the central government because of the coronavirus pandemic. In October, Ethiopian lawmakers cut off federal funding to the region as punishment.

International aid groups and the United Nations have been frustrated by the lack of access to the region to deliver aid.

Catherine Sozi, the U.N. resident coordinator in Ethiopia, said testimonies from aid workers returning in recent days revealed that the humanitarian situation “still remains dire.”

“No cash, no fuel, no telecoms,” Ms. Sozi said, adding that access to health care, food and clean water also remained an issue for people in Tigray.

The central government on Thursday said it would begin delivering its own aid to areas under federal control. “Reinforced supplies are currently in transport to federal-controlled areas,” said Billene Seyoum, a spokeswoman for the prime minister.

Mr. Abiy, the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 who promised to transform his country by ending decades of repression and opening up the economy, has so far resisted calls for international mediation in the conflict.

The 55-nation African Union has appointed former presidents Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, and Kgalema Motlanthe of South Africa to mediate in the crisis.

The three envoys held talks with Mr. Abiy on Friday during which he refused to back down.

Mr. Abiy “expressed the federal government’s mandated responsibility to enforce rule of law in the region and across the country,” his office said in a statement issued after the talks in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital. “Failure to do so would nurture a culture of impunity with devastating cost to the survival of the country.”

The T.P.L.F. leadership has said forces from neighboring Eritrea have joined with the central government in attacking Mekelle.

“Today the forces of Abiy Ahmed and Isaias Afwerki bombarded the densely populated town center and infrastructure of Mekelle with heavy artillery,” the Tigray state broadcaster reported, referring to the president of Eritrea. “They have also conducted air raids on several sites in Mekelle.”

Mr. Abiy’s government has denied that Eritrean troops have played any role in the conflict.

International concern has been mounting that the turbulence could spill over into other restive regions in Ethiopia, a nation of more than 110 million people. In neighboring Somalia, Ethiopian peacekeepers belonging to the Tigray ethnic group have been confined to their barracks and disarmed.

In Washington, the State Department’s top Africa policy official condemned the violence in the Tigray region.

“Fighting and shelling in the Mekele area are a very grave concern,” Tibor P. Nagy Jr., the assistant secretary of state for Africa, said in a Twitter message on Saturday. “We urge an immediate end to conflict and restoration of peace in Tigray. Civilians must be protected and humanitarian access provided to aid those in need.”

Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington.





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Ethiopia says it has seized control of Tigray’s capital


Ethiopia’s military took control of the capital of the rebel region of Tigray on Saturday, ending the “final phase” of a month-long armed conflict, prime minister Abiy Ahmed said.

Since November 3, the national government has been engaged in a military offensive against the northern region, which is led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, or TPLF.

Mr Abiy said the armed forces have taken over the capital Mekelle and that rebel “criminals” will be arrested and tried.

“I am pleased to share that we have completed and ceased military operations in the Tigray region,” Mr Abiy said.

“Our focus now will be on rebuilding the region and providing humanitarian assistance while federal police apprehend the TPLF clique”.

Information from the front lines has been tightly controlled after the government cut most telecommunications services, with both sides engaging in a war of words. Foreign diplomats in Addis Ababa believe hundreds, probably thousands, have died since the conflict began when the TPLF said it attacked a federal army command station in Mekelle.

Mr Abiy did not say whether there had been casualties in the military takeover of the capital. Human rights groups have expressed concern that an assault on a city of some 500,000 could lead to heavy civilian casualties. Amid growing calls for a ceasefire and concern for civilians from the international community, Mr Abiy on Friday met with emissaries from the African Union and agreed to open a “humanitarian assistance corridor”.

British foreign secretary, Dominic Raab said on Saturday that he was “very concerned about reports of fighting in Mekelle” and of rocket attacks in neighbouring Eritrea, whose government is close to Mr Abiy and an enemy of the TPLF. The US embassy in Eritrea said on Friday evening that “a loud noise, possibly an explosion” was heard in the capital Asmara.

Over 40,000 Ethiopian refugees have already fled across the border into neighbouring Sudan, with the United Nations fearing the number could double in the coming months if fighting continues. Senior Sudanese officials said that their state is ill-equipped to cope with such an influx of people.

The Ethiopian government calls the military action against the TPLF, which runs Tigray and dominated national politics until 2018, a law enforcement operation. The TPLF has been accused of massacring hundreds of civilians, although it has denied fomenting ethnic violence.

“What theTPLF clique did isn’t just a nuisance. It’s treasonous,” said Redwan Hussein, spokesman for the State of Emergency Task Force for the Tigray Crisis.

He accused the group of launching rockets, and slaughtering nearly 700 non-Tigrayan civilians.

Even with the army taking the city of Mekelle, western officials in Addis Ababa as well as Tigrayan observers warned that the national government could struggle to regain full control of the region, which is home to 5m of the country’s 110m people. “This only marks the start of another long insurgency in Tigray against Ethiopia, which will be fought not for regional autonomy, but for complete independence,” tweeted Alemayehu Weldemariam, an analyst on security and democracy in the Horn of Africa.

The TPLF led a successful guerrilla war against the Marxist Derg regime and then dominated the country’s politics for 27 years after marching on the capital in 1991. Its fighters are thought to be battle-hardened and well armed, analysts say, posing the risk of protracted guerrilla conflict in the mountainous region, even if its leadership is caught or killed. TPLF leaders have said they were “ready to die” to defend their region.





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Ethiopia conflict: Tigray rebels accused of destroying airport as government issues 72-hour surrender ultimatum | World News


Rebels have attacked an airport in northeast Ethiopia, the country’s state-run media has said, having been given 72 hours to surrender by the prime minister.

Forces from the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which have been battling with soldiers deployed by the central government, destroyed an airport in the ancient town of Axum, according to state-affiliated media.

Axum, which lies near the border with Eritrea, 133 miles (214km) north of the regional capital, Mekelle, is a popular tourist draw and UNESCO World Heritage site.

Its history and ruins, including fourth-century obelisks, are what give Ethiopia its claim to be one of the world’s oldest centres of Christianity.

Legend says the town was once home to the Queen of Sheba, who features in both the Bible and the Koran, and that the Ark of the Covenant was once housed in one of its churches.

News of the assault in Axum – reported by the state-affiliated Fana broadcaster – came after Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, gave rebels 72 hours to lay down their arms before federal troops attacked Mekelle.

They are currently circling the city at a range of about 30 miles, seemingly ready to strike if the demand is not met by Wednesday.

The threat from the prime minister was a cover for government forces to regroup after a series of defeats, TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael told Reuters news agency.

But there was no immediate response from either side to the other’s latest comments, and Reuters could not confirm their statements.

Claims by all sides are hard to verify because phone and internet communication has been taken down in Tigray, a mountainous northern zone of five million people, cutting it off from the world.

Image:
Buses take Ethiopian refugees to a camp inside Sudan

Hundreds, possibly thousands, have been killed in fighting and air strikes that erupted on 4 November, sending about 40,000 refugees into neighbouring Sudan.

The conflict, a long-running power struggle between Addis Ababa and the region’s leaders, has spread beyond Tigray, with the TPLF firing rockets into both the neighbouring Amhara region and across the border to Eritrea.

Some rockets fired into Amhara were targeted at the city of Bahir Dar, the government has said.

The United Nations is among those calling for mediation, but to little avail.

Ethiopian refugees who fled the fighting in the Tigray region gather on the banks of a border river with Sudan
Image:
Ethiopian refugees who fled the fighting in the Tigray region gather on the banks of a border river with Sudan
An Ethiopian fleeing the fighting in Tigray crosses the Setit River to get to Sudan
Image:
An Ethiopian fleeing the fighting in Tigray crosses the Setit River to get to Sudan

Mr Abiy’s government has repeatedly said it is only targeting TPLF leaders and facilities to restore law and order after they rose up against federal troops. It denies hitting civilians.

Its taskforce for the Tigray conflict said in a statement: “Our women and men in uniform have shown great care to protect civilians from harm during the law enforcement operation they have carried out in Tigray so far.”

The TPLF says Mr Abiy has “invaded” its region to dominate it and is inflicting “merciless” damage on Tigrayans.

Mr Gebremichael said in a text message to Reuters on Monday: “We are people of principle and are ready to die in defence of our right to administer our region.”



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Ethiopia tells civilians to ‘save yourselves’ as troops advance toward Tigray capital Mekelle


Ethiopian civilians have been urged to “save themselves” as advancing federal troops plan to surround the capital of the restive Tigray region with tanks in a bid to force opposition forces to surrender.

But the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which is refusing to surrender its rule of the northern region, said its forces were digging trenches and standing firm.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s federal troops have taken a string of towns during aerial bombardments and ground fighting, and are now aiming for the capital Mekelle, a highland city of about 500,000 people where the rebels are based.

The war has killed hundreds, possibly thousands, sent more than 30,000 refugees into neighbouring Sudan, and seen rockets fired by rebels into the neighbouring Amhara region and across the border into the nation of Eritrea.

Foreign nations have urged talks over what the United Nations has called a “full-scale humanitarian crisis”, but Mr Abiy has pressed on with the offensive since November 4.

Scores of civilians have fled the conflict for Sudan.(Reuters: El Tayeb Siddig)

Claims by all sides are hard to verify because the Ethiopian Government has shut off communications in Tigray.

Ethiopian military promises ‘no mercy’

You view a swarm of soldiers dancing with AK-47 machine guns pointed upward to a blue sky.
Due to a communications blackout, a complete picture of troop numbers or a death toll are hard to obtain.(AP via Ethiopian News Agency)

“The next phases are the decisive part of the operation, which is to encircle Mekelle using tanks,” military spokesperson Colonel Dejene Tsegaye told state-run Ethiopia Broadcasting Corporation.

TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael told Reuters by text message that his forces were resisting a push from the south while also fighting near the northern town of Adigrat after it fell to federal troops.

A map of the Tigray region in northern Ethiopia
The conflict in Tigray earlier this month.(AP: F Duckett)

“Encircling Mekelle is their plan but yet they couldn’t,” he said.

“On south front, they couldn’t move an inch for more than one week.

“They [are] sending waves after waves but to no avail.”

Mr Abiy has accused the Tigrayan leaders of revolting against the Federal Government and starting the conflict by attacking troops in the town of Dansha.

But the rebels have said his Government has marginalised Tigrayans since taking office two years ago, removing them from senior roles in government and the military and detaining many on rights abuse and corruption charges.

Shadow cast over past Nobel Peace Prize winner

A man in a suit smiling
The Ethiopian Prime Minister has refused international mediation on the conflict.(Reuters: Tiksa Negeri)

The Prime Minister drew plaudits for opening up Ethiopia’s closed economy and repressive political system after taking office, which included winning the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize for ending a two-decade standoff with neighbouring Eritrea.

However, rights groups have said his Government has carried out mass arrests after outbreaks of violence and detained journalists this year.

Redwan Hussein, a spokesperson for the Government’s taskforce on Tigray, contrasted with Colonel Tsegaye’s threats of “no mercy”, and said there was still time for TPLF leaders to surrender.

While many Tigrayan special forces and militiamen had surrendered or scattered around Adigrat, resistance was stronger on the southern front, Mr Redwan said, where rebels have dug up roads, destroyed bridges and booby-trapped roads.

The taskforce added that the army had also taken the small town of Idaga Hamus on the road from Adigrat to Mekelle.

Reuters



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Stop Ethiopia war and help civilians, Biden team urges



FILE PHOTO: Militia members from Ethiopia’s Amhara region ride on their truck as they head to face the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), in Sanja, Amhara region near a border with Tigray, Ethiopia November 9, 2020. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri//File Photo/File Photo

November 19, 2020

By Giulia Paravicini

ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) – U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s foreign policy aide on Thursday urged an end to fighting in north Ethiopia, where federal troops are battling rebels and pushing towards the regional capital.

A two-week-old war in the Tigray region has killed hundreds, sent 30,000 refugees into Sudan and called into question whether Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, Africa’s youngest leader and last year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, can hold his fractured nation together ahead of national elections next year.

Hundreds of foreign aid workers have left Tigray, warning of a spiralling crisis in an area where hundreds of thousands of people relied on food aid even before the fighting.

“Deeply concerned about the humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia, reports of targeted ethnic violence, and the risk to regional peace and security,” tweeted Antony Blinken, a veteran diplomat and longtime Biden confidant.

Africa’s second most populous nation with 115 million people, Ethiopia is a federation of 10 states run by separate ethnic groups. The war has pitted 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.

Ethiopia is a major U.S. ally whose soldiers serve in peacekeeping missions in South Sudan and Somalia. Its military and intelligence services are among the most capable in Africa.

“The TPLF and Ethiopian authorities should take urgent steps to end the conflict, enable humanitarian access, and protect civilians,” added Blinken, who is expected to play a senior role in the incoming U.S. administration.

On the ground, the TPLF leader said his soldiers still held the important town of Axum, though they had lost Shire as federal troops aimed for the state capital Mekelle.

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.

‘ATROCITIES’

An Ethiopian government statement referred to reports of ethnic killings in the town of Mai Kadra, documented by Amnesty International last week. Survivors told the rights group that militias affiliated to the Tigray government killed scores or even hundreds of civilians. The TPLF has denied involvement.

“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,” the government statement said, using an alternative spelling.

Ethiopian federal forces are trying to advance along main roads from the south and the northwest of Mekelle and were around 200 km (124 miles) from the Tigrayan capital, a diplomat monitoring the conflict said.

The military accused World Health Organization (WHO) head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, a Tigrayan, of trying to procure arms and diplomatic backing for the TPLF.

They offered no evidence for the accusations and there was no immediate response from Tedros. He held ministerial posts for a decade in Ethiopia’s TPLF-led governing coalition before being elected the WHO’s first African leader in 2017.

The conflict has also embroiled Ethiopia’s neighbours: the TPLF fired rockets at Eritrea last weekend, Sudan is receiving refugees. In Somalia, Ethiopia has removed weapons from ethnic Tigrayan soldiers in its peacekeeping contingent.

Tigrayans make up just 5% of Ethiopia’s population but had outsized political power for decades after TPLF guerrillas led a revolution in 1991. Abiy, whose parents are from the much larger Oromo and Amhara ethnic groups, became premier in 2018 and began opening up both the economy and a repressive political system.

He won last year’s Nobel for ending a long-running conflict with Eritrea, but since then his government has overseen curbs on the media and mass arrests after periods of deadly unrest.

He has so far rebuffed calls for talks over Tigray. The government denies any ethnic undertones to the offensive, saying it is a law-and-order operation necessary to maintain unity.

(Additional reporting by Katharine Houreld, Duncan Miriri and David Lewis in Nairobi; Writing by Katharine Houreld and Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Peter Graff)





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