Eritrea’s role in Ethiopian conflict


Eritrea’s leader, Isaias Afwerki, and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed

In a sign of the changing political fortunes of a man who was once a pariah, Eritrea’s President Isaias Afwerki has proven to be a staunch ally of Ethiopia’s Nobel Peace Prize winner and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, giving his troops much-needed support to fight the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in Tigray.

In a recent address to the Ethiopian parliament, the Nobel laureate revealed that Eritrea, a highly militarised one-party state, had fed, clothed and armed retreating Ethiopian soldiers when the TPLF first attacked them and seized their bases in Tigray, an Ethiopian region which borders Eritrea.

Mr Abiy said this made it possible for them to return to fight the TPLF, a former guerrilla movement with about 250,000 forces, until it was ousted from power in the region on 28 November.

“The Eritrean people have shown us… they are a relative standing by us on a tough day,” he added.

Addis Sissay, 49, walks in front of his destroyed house in the village of Bisober, in Ethiopia's Tigray region on December 9, 2020
The conflict in Tigray has devastated the lives of many people

This was a significant acknowledgement by Mr Abiy, though he did not go as far as to admit claims that Mr Isaias, had also sent troops to help defeat the TPLF, a long-time foe of the Eritrean leader who has been in power since 1993.

Hospital allegedly shelled

The claim that Eritrean troops are fighting in Tigray was made by the TPLF, civilians fleeing the conflict, and Eritreans inside and outside the country.

“Isaias is sending young Eritreans to die in Tigray. The war will also further weaken the economy. But Isaias will be in power for a long time. He lets people fight for their survival so that they do not fight for their freedom,” said Paulos Tesfagiorgis, an Eritrean human rights campaigner who was forced into exile by the regime in Asmara.

A US state department spokesperson also said there were “credible reports” of the presence of Eritrean troops in Tigray, and called it a “grave development”.

Both governments deny the reports, with Eritrea’s foreign minister, Osman Saleh Mohammed, describing them as “propaganda”.

Map
Map

As for UN chief António Gueterres, he said Mr Abiy had assured him there were no Eritrean troops in Tigray, except in territory that Ethiopia had agreed to hand over following a historic peace deal between the two nations in 2018.

The deal ended the “no war-no peace” situation that had existed between the two nations since their 1998-2000 border war, which left up to 100,000 people dead. It earned Mr Abiy the Nobel Peace Prize, though the territory had not been transferred to Eritrea by the time the conflict in Tigray had started in early November.

Mr Abiy’s government has heavily restricted access to Tigray for the media, UN agencies and human rights bodies, making it difficult to verify reports or to investigate allegations of atrocities made against all sides in the conflict – including the shelling of a hospital from Eritrean territory.

Eritrea has not commented on the alleged shelling, mentioned in a statement by the UN human rights chief. Mr Abiy denies that his troops have killed a single civilian in Tigray.

“This war has been fought in absolute darkness. No-one knows the true scale of the conflict or its impact,” said Kenya-based Horn of Africa analyst Rashid Abdi.

Eritrean forces accused of looting

US-based analyst Alex de Waal said he had been informed by a UN source that the conflict had caused the “large-scale displacement” of people in the region, the poorest in Ethiopia with a population of about five million.

“If it goes on like this, there will be mass starvation in Tigray, and a population that is embittered and angry,” Mr de Waal said.

He added that he had also learned from reliable sources in Tigray, including clerics, that Eritrean forces were involved in looting.

“We are hearing that they are even stealing doors [and] bathroom fittings,” he said.

More on the Tigray crisis:

Other Eritreans said that soldiers, including their relatives, were fighting TPLF forces on several fronts, and some of them were even wearing Ethiopian camouflage.

Eritrea insists that it does not have troops in Tigray, with its foreign minister quoted as saying: “We are not involved.”

But exiled former Eritrean diplomat Abdella Adem said he personally knew soldiers who had been wounded in combat, while a source at the public hospital in Eritrea’s southern town of Senafe told the BBC that both Eritrean and Ethiopian troops had been treated there.

‘Isaias seeks TPLF’s liquidation’

Other sources in Eritrea said that Ethiopian troops had also been seen regrouping around the central town of Hagaz, and taking their wounded to the nearby Gilas Military Hospital.

UK-based Eritrean academic Gaim Kibreab said he believed that Mr Isaias had sent troops to Tigray to pursue the “liquidation” of the TPLF, which, he added, has been the Eritrean leader’s key objective since the 1998-2000 border war.

The TPLF was in power at the time in Ethiopia’s federal government and the Tigray regional government.

Military tank graveyard, Central region, Asmara, Eritrea on August 22, 2019 in Asmara, Eritrea.
A military tank graveyard was built in Eritrea following the 1961-1991 independence war

“In the war of 1998-2000, the TPLF humiliated the president [Mr Isaias] by taking over the small village of Badme. Even when an international tribunal ruled that the village belonged to Eritrea, the TPLF refused to withdraw from the occupied place for 18 years.

“The president has been waiting for this moment and the TPLF underestimated his craftiness and patience at its own peril,” Mr Gaim added.

From peace to conflict

Mr Isaias’ supporters insist that Eritrean troops have not crossed into Tigray, saying they had only pursued the objective of regaining sovereign territory by taking over Badme, and surrounding areas.

Expressing a different view, Mr Paulos said: “Badme is back in Eritrean hands, but there has been no public announcement about it because that is not Isaias’ main concern. He is still pushing on to crush the TPLF.

“Abiy started as a peacemaker and a reformer, but he then fell into the trap of seeking revenge against the TPLF, which is what Isaias wanted.”

Women waving and smiling
Celebrations broke out at the Ethiopia-Eritrea border when it reopened in 2018

Mr Abiy says he tried to resolve differences with the TPLF peacefully, but was forced to act against it after it seized military bases in a night-time raid on 3 November, convincing him that it wanted to overthrow his government.

Although Mr Isaias rallied to his aid at the time, Eritrean state media has kept its audiences in the dark about the conflict, failing to even report on the TPLF-fired missiles that landed on the outskirts of the capital Asmara in early November, causing loud explosions that were heard by residents.

“Eritrean TV talks of bombs in Syria but when the missiles landed in Asmara, it said nothing,” noted exiled Eritrean former government official Dawit Fisehaye said.

In a tweet, Eritrea’s information minister Yemane Meskel said it was “pointless to amplify its [the TPLF’s] last-ditch, predictable, though inconsequential acts”.

‘Refugees abducted’

Internet access in Eritrea is limited and the country has no independent media and no opposition parties – the fate of 11 politicians and 17 journalists detained almost 20 years ago remains unknown.

Furthermore, military conscription is compulsory while job opportunities are limited, resulting in many people – especially youths – fleeing the country. About 100,000 had been living for years in UN camps in Tigray.

The UN refugee agency said it had received “an overwhelming number of credible reports” that refugees had been killed, abducted and forcibly returned to the one-party state during the current conflict.

Although it did not say who was behind the abductions, a refugee told the BBC that it was Eritrean soldiers who loaded them onto lorries in the town of Adigrat and took them across the border to Adi Quala town.

Eritrea has not commented on its alleged involvement, but it has previously accused the UN agency of “smear campaigns” and of trying to depopulate the country.

Mr Dawit said he did not believe that the regime would ever reform.

”There was no change in Eritrea up to now because the leadership did not want it and the demise of the TPLF will not change that. Expecting reform is a pipedream,” he added.





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The Ethiopian Civil War is Empowering Africa’s Terrorists


Here’s What You Need to Remember: Ethiopia has yet to drastically redeploy the bulk of its forces from the African Union mission, but a protracted war in its northern region, along with the prospect of Sudanese and Eritrean involvement, will likely see more troops withdrawn from critical counterterrorist operations in Somalia. If a resolution is not quickly reached in Tigray, the only foreseeable winner may be chaos.

Observers could be forgiven for thinking these days that East Africa is on the verge of unraveling. An ongoing conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray province is affecting the entire region, with its consequences being felt most keenly in Somalia.

In the Tigray there exists the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, a political party that governed the country up until recently but has since been sidelined following the ascension of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in 2018. Discontent with this change, among other factors, resulted in tensions between the TPLF and the federal government under Ahmed. On November 4, forces loyal to the TPLF launched a surprise attack on an Ethiopian military base. Shortly after, the Ethiopian government initiated a counteroffensive, prompting what is now a low-level but tense civil war. The clashes have put regional stability in peril, with neighbors such as Eritrea and Sudan considering whether to intervene. But to the east, it is jihadist-stricken Somalia that is mostly feeling the impact of Ethiopia’s recent hostilities. The crisis has already diverted Ethiopian counterterrorist forces from Somalia, and a protracted conflict may spell disaster for Somalia’s security.

Somalia is the quintessential example of a failed state. The nation has been embroiled in civil strife since the early 1990s, and has been fighting al-Shabaab, a jihadist organization, since 2006. The group, which has ties to Al Qaeda, seeks to supplant the current government with hardline Islamic fundamentalism. The organization reached the height of its power in 2011 before being dislodged from the capital Mogadishu and other key cities by a Kenyan intervention. Following this, al-Shabaab lost considerable swaths of territory and has since been kept relatively in check by the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM), of which Ethiopia is a key participant. Currently, al-Shabaab maintains a significant presence in southern and central Somalia, launching frequent attacks against civilians, the central government, and even neighboring Kenya. The Somalian government, for its part, possesses a weak army, with a 2017 readiness assessment revealing up to 30 percent of its soldiers in its bases remain unarmed. Having such an enfeebled fighting force, the government is heavily reliant on international assistance in its war with al-Shabaab.

As such, to safeguard itself from jihadi influence, Ethiopia has historically been involved in a number of interventions in Somalia. But the eruption of violence in the Tigray region has forced Addis Ababa to reduce its foreign commitments. Last week, around 3,000 Ethiopian troops deployed in Somalia (separate from the AMISOM mission) were withdrawn to support the government’s campaign against the TPLF. Additionally, Ethiopia contributes over 4,000 troops to AMISOM, and while most still remain in Somalia, Ethiopia’s Tigrayan officers serving in the mission are being sent home or kept in their barracks. Furthermore, hundreds of Tigrayan peacekeepers under AMISOM have had their weapons confiscated.

Recent reports disclose the Ethiopian military’s abandonment of posts in southwestern Somalia, an area with a tangible al-Shabaab presence. The region, bordering Kenya, is used by al-Shabaab to launch attacks into the country. For instance: Mahir Khalid Riziki, an al-Shabaab suicide bomber who participated in the killing of twenty-one people in a 2019 attack in Nairobi, entered Kenya through Somalia’s southwest. U.S. military forces stationed in Kenya may also find themselves increasingly threatened by attacks launched across the porous border. In January, al-Shabaab militants killed three United States defense personnel in an assault on a base used by the U.S. military. As such, a reduced peacekeeping force in Somalia’s southwest may have dire transnational consequences.

On top of this, Somalia is set to hold presidential and legislative elections in early 2021. If Ethiopia were to continue shifting its forces from counter-terrorist operations in Somalia, al-Shabaab could use the opportunity to disrupt the political process, plunging the nation into political turmoil. Already, the group has increased the frequency of attacks against civilians in the lead up to the elections.

A continued conflict in northern Ethiopia may see more Ethiopian peacekeepers withdrawn from Somalia, creating a vacuum that may be easily exploited by al-Shabaab militants. At present, al-Shabaab is considered the most formidable affiliate of Al Qaeda, and a resurgence would likely prompt increased attacks against civilian and military targets in the Horn of Africa. Ethiopia has yet to drastically redeploy the bulk of its forces from the African Union mission, but a protracted war in its northern region, along with the prospect of Sudanese and Eritrean involvement, will likely see more troops withdrawn from critical counterterrorist operations in Somalia. If a resolution is not quickly reached in Tigray, the only foreseeable winner may be chaos.

Jack Erickson is an undergraduate studying Political Science at Emory University. This article first appeared last month and is being republished due to reader interest.​

Image: Reuters.



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Ethiopian forces shoot at UN as Government refuses independent inquiry into civil conflict


Ethiopia’s Government has confirmed security forces shot at and detained United Nations workers trying to reach part of the embattled Tigray region.

It comes as the Government is rejecting calls for independent investigations into the deadly conflict in the region, saying it “doesn’t need a babysitter”.

Senior official Redwan Hussein told reporters the UN staffers “broke” two checkpoints to go to areas where “they were not supposed to go”.

He said the staffers had since been released.

Humanitarian organisations are becoming increasingly frustrated aid is still not freely reaching the Tigray region more than a week after the UN and Ethiopia’s Government signed a deal for access.

Ethiopia’s Government is making it clear it intends to manage the process, but the UN has sought unfettered and neutral access.

The month-long bout of fighting between Ethiopian forces and those of the fugitive Tigray regional government is thought to have killed thousands, including civilians.

Thousands of refugees fled to neighbouring Sudan.

At least one large-scale massacre has been documented by human rights groups, and others are feared to have occurred.

Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, declared victory at the end of November, but the Tigray People’s Liberation Front says fighting continues.

Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, won the Nobel Peace Prize last year for ending a long-running stand-off with Eritrea.(Reuters: Tiksa Negeri)

Lack of transparency

The region remains largely cut off from the outside world, with food and medicines desperately needed by the population of 6 million — some 1 million of them now thought to be displaced.

The lack of transparency, as most communications and transport links remain severed, has complicated efforts to verify the warring sides’ claims.

It also hurts efforts to understand the extent of atrocities that have been committed.

The Government has pushed back against what it calls outside “interference” — efforts at dialogue for delivering aid.

Mr Hussein told reporters Ethiopia would invite assistance with investigations only if it felt “it failed to investigate”.

To assume the Government could not carry out such probes was “belittling the Government”, he said.

Sporadic shooting continues in Tigray and humanitarian assistance must be escorted by defence forces, Mr Redwan said.

Space to play or pause, M to mute, left and right arrows to seek, up and down arrows for volume.
The Ethiopian Government declared victory after saying it had taken “full control” of the Tigray region’s capital.

Allegations of massacres

The UN said it was “engaging at the highest level with the Federal Government to express our concerns”.

The deal for access made more than a week ago allows aid only in areas under government control.

There are allegations of massacres and attacks on refugee camps inside Tigray.

However, the UN human rights office has not responded to questions about whether it has begun investigating possible war crimes.

Medical supplies running out

Tigray’s capital, Mekele, was “basically today without medical care”, the director-general of the International Committee for the Red Cross, Robert Mardini, told reporters.

The city’s Ayder Referral Hospital had run out of supplies, including fuel to power generators, he said.

“Doctors and nurses have been forced to make horrible life and death decisions,” Mr Mardini said.

A joint ICRC-Ethiopian Red Cross convoy with supplies for hundreds of injured people was ready to go to Mekele, pending approval, he said.

It would be the first international convoy to reach the city since the fighting began.

While Tigray capital’s remained insecure, there was no active fighting, Mr Mardini said.

“People in Tigray have been cut off from services for nearly a month,” he said.

“They have had no phone, no internet, no electricity and no fuel. Cash is running out. This of course adds to the tension.”

AP



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Labor MP shows support for Australia’s Ethiopian community as wounded flood Tigray hospitals


Labor MP Andrew Giles has urged his parliamentary colleagues to do what they can to support the country’s Ethiopian community, amid “a full-scale humanitarian crisis” believed to be affecting about 50 Australians.

His comments come amid a military confrontation in Ethiopia’s Tigray region which has sent tens of thousands of refugees into Sudan and seen the wounded flood hospitals as hundreds are reportedly killed.

Speaking in the House of Representatives on Monday, Mr Giles said he believed 50 Australian citizens were currently in the Tigray region, where communications have been cut off.

“It’s difficult to imagine how distressing this must be given the circumstances there at the moment,” he said.

“While other nations have repatriated their citizens from the conflict, we have not.”

Mr Giles said the world could not stand by and watch, and urged all politicians in the house to do what they could to “support our friends in Australia’s Ethiopian community” during a difficult time.

Wounded flood hospitals as PM claims victory

Meanwhile, hospitals in the Tigray capital faced an influx of trauma patients on Sunday, an aid group said, after federal troops claimed control of the city and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said fighting was over.

Mr Abiy, last year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, declared victory on Saturday evening in the confrontation with leaders of Tigray’s ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).

But a communications blackout in Tigray has made it impossible to independently verify whether the regional capital Mekele is completely under federal government control.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.

Getty Images

It has also frustrated efforts to obtain a full picture of fierce fighting in Tigray that has left thousands dead and sent tens of thousands of refugees streaming across the border into Sudan.

On Sunday the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said health workers in Mekele were struggling with shortages of food and medical supplies including body bags.

At Ayder Referral Hospital, one of the city’s biggest, the ICRC said it “found approximately 80 percent of patients to be suffering from trauma injuries,” without specifying how the injuries were sustained.

“The influx of wounded forced the hospital to suspend many other medical services so that limited staff and resources could be devoted to emergency medical care,” the ICRC said in a statement.

It also noted that Mekele was “quiet” on Sunday, the latest indication the TPLF opted to retreat rather than face government troops in a city that, before the conflict, had a population of half a million.

Mr Abiy announced on 4 November he was sending federal troops into Tigray in response to attacks by pro-TPLF forces on federal army camps.

The move marked a dramatic escalation of tensions between Mr Abiy and the TPLF, which dominated Ethiopian politics for nearly three decades before anti-government protests swept Mr Abiy to office in 2018.

After securing control of western Tigray and giving TPLF leaders a 72-hour ultimatum to surrender, Mr Abiy announced on Thursday he had ordered a “final offensive” against pro-TPLF forces in Mekele.

Fears of insurgency tactics

Global concern had mounted over a possible bloodbath, and heavy shelling was reported in Mekele earlier Saturday.

But in the government’s telling, little fighting actually occurred.

Scant news filtered out of Mekele on Sunday even through official channels.

Women and men who fled the conflict in Ethiopia's Tigray region, wait to pour water into gallons, at Umm Rakouba refugee camp in eastern Sudan on 27 November.

Women and men who fled the conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, wait to pour water into gallons, at Umm Rakouba refugee camp in eastern Sudan on 27 November.

AAP

A military spokesman, General Mohamed Tessema, told AFP that operations were proceeding “very well” and that soldiers were “doing their work peacefully”, but said he could offer no details.

Elsewhere in Tigray, state television reported Sunday that graves containing more than 70 bodies had been discovered in the town of Humera, and quoted witnesses who claimed the victims were killed by pro-TPLF fighters.

Tigray regional television, for its part, claimed pro-TPLF forces had recaptured the towns of Axum and Mai-Tsebri from federal forces and had also shot down a government warplane.

Neither report could be independently corroborated.

The TPLF has vowed to fight on as long as pro-Abiy forces have any kind of presence in Tigray, and analysts have warned it could shift gears to adopt insurgency-style tactics.

A top commander in the Tigray operations, Lieutenant General Bacha Debele, told state-affiliated media Sunday that the military was “ready to prevent any possible suicide attacks by the TPLF junta in the future”.

Mr Abiy had said police were working to apprehend the party leadership, who were not reachable Sunday, their whereabouts unknown.

Ever since Mr Abiy took office, TPLF leaders have complained of being sidelined from top positions, targeted in corruption prosecutions and broadly scapegoated for the country’s woes.

Rockets strike Eritrea

Hours after Mr Abiy announced Mekele had fallen to federal forces, rockets were launched from Tigray targeting Asmara, the capital of neighbouring Eritrea, two diplomats told AFP.

The rockets appeared to be aimed at Asmara’s airport and military installations, though it was unclear where they landed and what damage they might have caused.

The US embassy in Asmara reported that “six explosions” had occurred in the city “at about 10:13 pm” Saturday.

It marked the third time Asmara has come under fire from Tigray during the conflict.

The TPLF has claimed responsibility only for the first attack two weeks ago.

It said Asmara was a legitimate target because Ethiopia was enlisting Eritrean military support for its campaign in Tigray, which Ethiopia denies.

Mr Abiy says his government is now focused on rebuilding Tigray and providing humanitarian assistance to the population of six million.

Displacement is believed to be widespread within the region, which has suffered multiple rounds of air strikes and at least one massacre that killed hundreds of civilians.

The United Nations has spent weeks lobbying – so far unsuccessfully -for full access.

With reporting by SBS News.



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Ethiopian forces will take Tigrayan capital within days, military says


Ethiopian forces will take control of the Tigray region’s capital Mekelle in coming days, the military says, a day after the prime minister announced the “final phase” of an offensive in the region.

Federal forces seized control of Wikro, a town 50km north of Mekelle and “will control Mekelle in a few days”, Lieutenant-General Hassan Ibrahim said in a statement. Government troops had also taken control of several other towns, he said.

Reuters was not immediately able to reach the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) for comment, or to verify the statement.

Claims by all sides in the three-week-old conflict between government and TPLF forces have been impossible to verify because phone and internet connections to the region are down and access to the area is tightly controlled.

People who fled the conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region walk at Umm Rakouba refugee camp in Qadarif, eastern Sudan.

AP

On Friday evening in the neighbouring country of Eritrea, “a loud noise, possibly an explosion” was heard in the capital Asmara, the US Embassy there said in a statement early on Saturday.

Reuters has not been able to reach Eritrean government official for more than two weeks. TPLF rockets hit neighbouring Eritrea on 14 November.

The Ethiopian military has been fighting rebellious local forces in the northern region of Tigray, which borders Eritrea and Sudan.

Thousands of people are believed to have died and there has been widespread destruction from aerial bombardment and ground fighting since the war began. Around 43,000 refugees have fled to Sudan.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed accuses Tigrayan leaders of starting the war by attacking federal troops at a base in Tigray on 4 November. The TPLF says the attack was a pre-emptive strike.

The government gave the TPLF an ultimatum last Sunday to lay down arms or face an assault on Mekelle, a city of 500,000 people, raising fears among aid groups of extensive civilian casualties. The ultimatum expired on Wednesday.

Mr Abiy, who announced on Thursday that the military was beginning the “final phase” of its offensive, told African peace envoys on Friday that his government will protect civilians in Tigray.

But a statement issued by the prime minister’s office after their meeting made no mention of talks with the TPLF to end fighting. It also did not mention any plans for further discussions with them.

Women who fled a conflict in Ethiopia's Tigray region, and a Sudanese girl from a tribe living near by, pour water into gallons at a eastern Sudan refugee camp.

Women who fled a conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, and a Sudanese girl from a tribe living near by, pour water into gallons at a eastern Sudan refugee camp.

AP

Letter to envoys

On Friday, a letter was sent to embassies in Addis Ababa warning defence attaches that they risked expulsion if they were in contact with unnamed enemies of Ethiopia.

“Some military attaches are working with those who endangered the security of the country, identified in blacklist and sought by attorney of the court,” said the letter. The letter was stamped by Brigadier-General Boultie Tadesse of the Defence Foreign Relations Directorate, on the copy of shown to Reuters.

“We will expel those who do not refrain from their actions who are in contact with those extremist group.”

A military spokesman and the head of the government’s Tigray taskforce did not respond to requests for comment.

Billene Seyoum, a spokeswoman for the prime minister’s office, said she could not address questions about the letter, including whether it was referring to the TPLF, without seeing the original document.

Tigrayans, who make up about six per cent of Ethiopia’s 115 million population, dominated the government until Mr Abiy took power two years ago.

Mr Abiy pledged to unite Ethiopians and introduce freedoms after years of state repression that filled jails with tens of thousands of political prisoners. His government also put senior Tigrayan officials on trial for crimes such as corruption, torture and murder. The Tigrayan region saw those trials as discrimination.

Mr Abiy’s reforms created more political space but also lifted the lid on long-repressed tensions over land and resources.



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Ethiopian PM to meet with African peace envoys after ordering ‘final phase’ of Tigray offensive


African peace envoys were due to meet Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed on Friday, a day after he said the military was beginning the “final phase” of an offensive in the northern Tigray region that rights groups fear could bring huge civilian casualties.

The government had given the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) until Wednesday (local time) to lay down their arms or face an assault on Mekelle, the regional capital of 500,000 people.

The United Nations says 200 aid workers are also in the city.

The envoys were due to meet Mr Abiy at 11am on Friday, said Redwan Hussein, spokesman of the government’s State of Emergency Task Force for the Tigray conflict. 

The envoys were in Addis Ababa “with a view to helping to mediate between the parties to conflict” in Ethiopia, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, who is also the AU chair, said earlier this week.

Mr Abiy, who won last year’s Nobel Peace Prize for ending a two-decade standoff with Eritrea, has said he will not talk with TPLF leaders until they are defeated or give up.

Thousands of people are already believed to have died amid air strikes and ground fighting since the conflict began on 4 November. The United Nations estimates 1.1 million Ethiopians will need aid as a result of the conflict.

The conflict has sent shockwaves through the Horn of Africa. More than 43,000 refugees have fled to Sudan, while TPLF rockets have hit the capital of neighbouring Eritrea.

Reuters was unable to reach the TPLF for comment on Friday morning, but two diplomats said fighting raged in several areas outside Mekelle.

With phone and internet connections shut off to the region and access to the area tightly controlled, verifying claims by all sides has been impossible.

Tigray people who fled the conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, overlook Umm Rakouba refugee camp in Qadarif, eastern Sudan, on 26 November, 2020.

AP via AAP

TPLF ‘digging trenches’

At time of writing, there was no indication that the Ethiopian military had entered the city of Mekelle. The TPLF has previously said it was digging trenches around the city. Reuters was unable to verify those claims.

Finance Minister Ahmed Shide said on Thursday that the government was trying to make people in the city aware of the military operation.

“We have made the people of Mekelle to be aware of the operation by deploying military helicopters and dropping pamphlets in Tigrinya and also in Amharic so that they protect themselves against this,” he told France24.

Ethiopian soldiers rest at the 5th Battalion  of the Northern Command of the Ethiopian Army in Dansha, Ethiopia, on 25, November, 2020.

Ethiopian soldiers rest at the 5th Battalion of the Northern Command of the Ethiopian Army in Dansha, Ethiopia, on 25, November, 2020.

AFP via Getty Images

Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, said such efforts were not akin to protecting civilians from harm.

“Warnings don’t absolve the Ethiopian military of the duty to protect civilians during military operations in urban areas,” Mr Roth tweeted on Thursday.

Urging the TPLF not to deploy its forces among civilian populations in the city of Mekelle, he added: “Violations by one side don’t justify violations by the other.”

Mr Abiy’s office said on Thursday that authorities were opening a humanitarian access route, but the United Nations said it had no information on the route and the region was blocked to aid groups.

Tigrayans, who make up about six per cent of Ethiopia’s 115 million-strong population, dominated the government until Mr Abiy took power two years ago.

Pledging to unite Ethiopians and introduce freedoms after years of state repression, Mr Abiy jailed senior Tigrayan officials, which the region saw as discrimination.

Mr Abiy accuses Tigrayan leaders of starting the conflict by attacking federal troops at a base in Tigray three weeks ago. The TPLF have described the attack as a pre-emptive strike.

Tigrayan forces have large stocks of military hardware and number up to 250,000 men, experts say, while the region has a history of guerrilla resistance.

Even before conflict broke out, as resentment in Tigray against the federal government grew, Tigrayans adopted a slogan from the TPLF: “nobody will kneel down”.



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Ethiopian Farmers Fight Locusts as UN Agency Warns of Worsening Situation



The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization has warned of worsening locust problems in East Africa, as “more swarms are forming from current breeding in Ethiopia and a new generation of laying has started in central Somalia.” Farmers in Ethiopia have been battle successive waves of locusts since late 2019, in the worst extended infestation in 25 years, according to the FAO. Ethiopian state media quoted Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed as saying 420,000 hectares of land have been devastated in 240 districts. In its situation report, the FAO said breeding was “underway on the Red Sea coastal plains,” meaning “additional swarm migrations and further increases in locust numbers can be expected.” It added, however, that the region was better prepared than at the same time last year. On October 19, China donated 72 tons of pesticides, 2,000 hand-held sprayers, and 20,000 personal protective gears to help Ethiopia in its locust-control operations. Credit: Getachew Aregawi via Storyful



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Israel to ‘immediately’ bring over 2,000 Ethiopian Jews


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has told his Ethiopian counterpart that his country has the intention to “immediately” bring over some 2,000 Ethiopian Jews

Netanyahu’s office said the decision comes “out of his commitment to the continued aliyah of Jews to Israel.”

Some 13,000 Ethiopian Jews are in the capital, Addis Ababa, and in Gondar, most of them waiting to be taken to Israel, which they call home. Most live in dire conditions and have threatened to stage a hunger strike if they’re not allowed to travel to their “homeland.” Many say they have family members who have settled in Israel.

“Some 250 people have left for Israel within the past year until COVID-19 came. Now the travel has stopped, but Israeli officials are conducting interviews online,” Nigusie Alemu Eyasu, program director for the Ethiopian Jews Community, told The Associated Press.

Activists say Israel’s government in 2015 pledged to bring the remaining Ethiopian Jews to Israel. In 1991 while Ethiopia was in the midst of civil war, Israel carried out the dramatic Operation Solomon, airlifting out some 14,500 Ethiopian Jews in less than two days.

Ethiopian Jews are often referred to in Ethiopia as “Falashas,” a derogatory word which translates into “strangers” or “migrants.”



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Popular Ethiopian protest singer shot dead


The 34-year-old’s songs focused on the rights of his Oromo people

Demonstrations have broken out in Ethiopia following the shooting dead of musician Hachalu Hundessa, well known for his political songs.

Two people have died during protests in one town, doctors told the BBC.

Hachalu’s songs often focused on the rights of the country’s Oromo ethnic group and became anthems in a wave of protests that led to the downfall of the previous prime minister.

The 34-year-old had said that he had received death threats.

The police are now investigating the killing, which took place on the outskirts of the capital, Addis Ababa.

Thousands of his fans headed to the hospital in the city where the body of the singer was taken on Monday night, BBC Afaan Oromo’s Bekele Atoma reports.

Crowds of people came out to mourn the singer in Addis Ababa
Crowds of people came out to mourn the singer in Addis Ababa

To them, he was a voice of his generation that protested against decades of government repression, he says.

Police used tear gas to disperse the crowd.

Gunshots have been heard in Addis Ababa and people set fire to tyres.

Map
Map

In the eastern town of Chiro, two people were shot dead during protests, a medic at the local hospital told BBC Afaan Oromo.

In another town – Adama – one person was injured and government buildings have been set ablaze.

The internet has also been shut down in parts of the country as the protests spread in Oromia regional state.

‘More than an entertainer’

By Bekele Atoma, BBC Afaan Oromo

Hachalu Hundessa
Hachalu Hundessa

Hachalu was more than just a singer and entertainer.

He was a symbol for the Oromo people who spoke up about the political and economic marginalisation that they had suffered under consecutive Ethiopian regimes.

In one of his most famous songs, he sang: “Do not wait for help to come from outside, a dream that doesn’t come true. Rise, make your horse ready and fight, you are the one close to the palace.”

The musician had also been imprisoned for five years when he was 17 for taking part in protests.

Many like him fled into exile fearing persecution but he remained in the country and encouraged the youth to struggle.

Hachalu’s body was being taken to his hometown, Ambo, about 100km (62 miles) west of the capital, but protesters have insisted that he is buried in Addis Ababa.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has expressed his condolences saying in a tweet that Ethiopia “lost a precious life today” and describing the singer as “marvellous”.

What were the Oromo protests about?

The Oromo, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, have long complained of being sidelined.

Demonstrations erupted in 2016 and pressure built on the government.

In 2016 and 2017 there was a wave of demonstrations in defiance of the government
In 2016 and 2017 there was a wave of demonstrations in defiance of the government

The ruling coalition eventually replaced then-Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn with Mr Abiy, who is Oromo himself.

He has brought in a series of reforms which has transformed what was considered a very oppressive state.

He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 primarily for making peace with long-time foe Eritrea, but his efforts in transforming Ethiopia were also recognised.



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