Ethiopia regions send troops to back fight with Tigray rebels

·4-min read

Three Ethiopian regions previously untouched by the war in Tigray confirmed Thursday they were deploying forces to back military operations there, signalling a potential widening of the conflict.

The mobilisation follows Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's warning Wednesday that his forces would repel any attacks by its enemies, effectively tearing up a June 28 government-declared ceasefire.

The reinforcements are coming from Oromia -- Ethiopia's largest region -- as well as the Sidama and Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples' (SNNP) region, local officials and state media reported.

Abiy sent troops into Tigray last November, saying the move responded to an assault on federal army camps ordered by the region's ruling party, the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF).

The 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner declared victory in late November, but fighting persisted and TPLF leaders remained on the run.

The war took a stunning turn in late June when rebels retook the Tigray capital Mekele and Abiy declared a unilateral ceasefire, pulling back most troops.

The conflict has already killed thousands of people and sent hundreds of thousands to the brink of famine.

This week the rebels -- rebranded as the Tigray Defence Forces (TDF) -- launched a new offensive intended to drive ethnic Amhara forces off disputed territory in western and southern Tigray.

In response, Amhara security forces and militias have mobilised en masse. Regional spokesman Gizachew Muluneh said Wednesday it was shifting to "attack" mode to reverse the rebels' battlefield gains.

- 'Stand united' -

AFP journalists in the town of Adi Arkay near the Amhara-Tigray border on Wednesday saw thousands of newly-mobilised Amhara militia fighters awaiting orders to advance.

Officials in northern Amhara said they feared TDF fighters wanted to push south towards Addis Ababa and topple the government.

Oromia president Shimeles Abdisa charged that Tigrayan leaders wanted to "destabilise" the entire country, adding: "We should stand united to do whatever it takes to incapacitate (the rebels)."

TDF spokesman Getachew Reda had declared this week that the rebels would "liberate every square inch of Tigray".

Two days after the TDF took Mekele, he told AFP that its fighters were prepared to march on Addis Ababa if necessary "to secure Tigray".

It was not clear how many troops from the various regions were being sent towards Tigray.

A military spokesman declined to answer questions about ongoing operations.

The United Nations and humanitarian sources have reported fighting around several towns in western Tigray, and confirmed that clashes on Tuesday between rival forces in a camp for Eritrean refugees had sent people fleeing.

The UN refugee agency voiced alarm at the situation in the camps, saying tens of thousands of people were trapped by the conflict.

"At least one Eritrean refugee death has been confirmed, with credible reports of arrests, detentions, beatings, looting, and sporadic gunfire," Ann Encontre, the UNHCR's representative in Ethiopia, said in a statement.

- 'Ethiopians will starve' -

Abiy won by a landslide in June elections to secure a five-year term.

But the Tigray war has badly damaged his international standing, with Western powers demanding aid access and warning of a humanitarian disaster.

The UN has said roughly 350,000 people in Tigray face famine, while the United States has put the figure as high as 900,000.

The World Food Programme said a convoy carrying 900 tonnes of supplies arrived in Mekele this week.

But the shipment represents only one percent of the food needed for the month, Samantha Power, head of the US Agency for International Development, said on Twitter Thursday.

"Ethiopians will starve unless more convoys are allowed, & much faster."

Abiy's government said its ceasefire aimed to facilitate humanitarian access and complained Wednesday that Tigrayan leaders -- whom he refers to as the "junta" -- did not heed the truce call.

"When it was in caves, the junta was screaming, saying our people are going to die of hunger. But when a ceasefire is declared, it abandoned the agenda of hunger and started beating the drums of war," Abiy said.

He also accused the international community of ignoring recruitment of child soldiers -- something the TDF has denied.

On Thursday, Redwan Hussein, spokesman for a government task force set up in response to the Tigray conflict, accused some aid groups of "arming the other side", but gave no details.

He said in a video statement that if such activities continued the government would "force some of them out of the country".

- Media outlet suspended -

Ethiopia has also come under pressure for its media environment, with the reported arrest last month of 12 journalists in Addis Ababa.

The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, a state-affiliated but independent body, said Thursday it was monitoring reports of the arrests as well as closure of businesses, and "other types of harassment" targeting ethnic Tigrayans.

Addis Standard, a prominent independent online outlet, said on Twitter it was suspending its activities after the Ethiopian Media Authority revoked its licence.