Ethiopia army advances in Tigray as conflict mediation efforts ramp up

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Ethiopia’s army captured the town of Alamata, in southern Tigray, 115 kilometres from the regional capital Mekelle, according to a statement on Monday by the Ethiopian government, as a conflict between the federal government and Tigray region continues to escalate.

The Ethiopian task force responsible for handling federal government operations in Tigray said Ethiopian troops “liberated” Alamata, with fighters from the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) fleeing along with some 10,000 prisoners.

Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, said on Sunday that operations in the Tigray region were “progressing well”.

Hundreds of people are feared dead after nearly two weeks of fighting, with both sides accusing each other of starting the conflict. Rockets were fired into Eritrea at the weekend, with the authorities in Tigray claiming to have targeted Asmara airport.

“A series of loud noises were heard in Asmara,” the US embassy in Eritrea said in a statement published on Sunday evening. “Unconfirmed reports indicate they may have been explosive devices believed to be in the vicinity of the Asmara International Airport. There are no indications the airport was struck,” the embassy added.

Some 25,000 people have fled from Ethiopia to neighbouring Sudan, a number which has doubled in last two days, according to the UN refugee agency.

Rights groups have warned of atrocities committed in Tigray, with Amnesty International saying scores of people were stabbed or hacked to death in Mai-Kadra town, in the region's south-west.

"It is very important to stress the need to prioritise human rights, the protection of civilians, and access for humanitarian assistance,” said Stéphane Dujarric, spokesperson for UN Secretary General António Guterres.

"We're facing a bit of a black hole in terms of what is actually going on," Dujarric told a press briefing in New York on Monday.

International conflict?

The leader of the Tigray region said in a statement dated Sunday that the attacks were carried out by forces from Ethiopia and Eritrea, as well as “non-African forces”.

"Highly sophisticated weaponry, which included drones and other technologies that cannot be found on the African continent, were extensively used when attacking the people of Tigray," said a statement signed by Debretsion Gebremichael, president of the Tigray region.

Radio Erena, a Paris-based radio station broadcasting to Eritrea in Tigrinya and Arabic, reported on Monday that “heavy shelling” from the Tigray region continued to target southern Eritrea, including Senafe, a town on the edge of the Eritrean highlands, and the village of Dibdib, 12 kilometres from the Ethiopian border. People fled to safety in nearby mountains, according to Radio Erena.

Mediation efforts

Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni held talks with Ethiopia’s Deputy Prime Minister Demeke Mekonnen on Monday in northern Uganda. A tweet from Museveni said that “a war in Ethiopia would give the entire continent a bad image”, however, the tweet was later deleted.

“There should be negotiations and the conflict stopped, lest it leads to unnecessary loss of lives and cripples the economy,” said Museveni, in the deleted tweet. A later tweet from the Ugandan leader said discussions focused on “peace and security issues” affecting Ethiopia.

Meanwhile, Nigeria’s former president Olusegun Obasanjo headed to Addis Ababa on Monday for mediation efforts, according to AFP news agency, citing the former Nigerian leader’s spokesperson.

Tibor Nagy, the US State Department’s top Africa diplomat, said that the TPLF’s attacks against Eritrea were “unjustifiable”. He added that action must be taken to “de-escalate tensions”.

Moussa Faki Mahamat, chairperson of the African Union Commission, last week called for the “immediate cessation of hostilities”, urging both sides to hold talks.

Ethiopia’s modus operandi

Taking the regional capital Mekelle is the ultimate goal of Ethiopian military operations, with the aim of capturing the leadership of the TPLF, according to an Ethiopian diplomat who spoke to RFI on condition of anonymity.

The Ethiopian government is not going to negotiate, and no other foreign armies, neither Eritrean nor Emirati, are involved in operations, the diplomat said. The Ethiopian authorities are specifically targeting TPLF elites, not the whole political party, with the intention of holding elections in May/June 2021.

RFI contacted Yemane Meskel, Eritrea’s minister of information, for reaction to attacks against Eritrea, but he was unavailable for comment.