State of emergency launched in Ethiopia's Tigray region over security concerns

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Ethiopian lawmakers have approved a six-month state of emergency in the northern Tigray region, a day after Prime Minister Abiy launched military operations there in response to what he said was an attack on federal troops.

The move is part of an attempt by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali, winner of last year's Nobel Peace Prize, to assert federal control over a region whose ruling party has openly defied him for months and brands him as illegitimate.

The lower house of parliament "unanimously approved" the state of emergency in a session Thursday morning, state-affiliated Fana Broadcasting Corporate said.

According to Ethiopia's constitution, under a state of emergency the government has "all necessary power to protect the country's peace and sovereignty" and can suspend some "political and democratic rights".

A senior government official told AFP that in Tigray this could lead to a curfew, searches without warrants, transportation and communications restrictions as well as the detention of "any person that [officials] suspect is taking part in illegal activities that threaten the constitutional order".

The state of emergency could also be extended beyond Tigray if needed, the official said.

Call to maintain humanitarian access

Ahead of Thursday's vote, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, the national rights body, pointed to the need to maintain key services and supplies for civilians.

Lawmakers "should in particular consider ensuring humanitarian access and support including for food, medicine and other essential civilian services to avoid a complete blockage of communication and transport facilities," it said.

TPLF denies attack

Abiy announced the military operations in Tigray on Wednesday morning.

He said the move came in response to an "attack" by the region's ruling party, the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), on a military camp there.

But a senior Tigrayan official told AFP Thursday that the "attack" never happened.

"No attack was launched by us," said the official, Wondimu Asamnew.

Further operations to come

Speaking on state television Wednesday night, Abiy said there would be further operations in the "coming days".

"In general, when the operations are finished we will disclose them to the public," he said.

The government has not revealed a timeline or a clear military objective for the campaign, though a spokesman for a newly-formed crisis committee said Wednesday that the goal was to "liberate" the region from the TPLF.

Abiy said the initial attack produced "many martyrs", but officials have provided little information on subsequent military operations.

Fighting so far appears to have been largely concentrated in western Tigray, diplomats and aid workers said.

Shuttle diplomacy from AU

The fighting in Tigray has drawn expressions of concern from the UN, the US and the EU.

An official at the African Union told AFP Thursday that the body, headquartered in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, was reaching out to "all actors" to try to bring a swift end to the conflict.

"The African Union is engaged in shuttle diplomacy in the region and with all actors at the moment to try to find some sort of solution. But it's clearly very sensitive right now," the official said.

"I know that everybody is clamouring for public pronouncements. The situation is so dire that it's really about the doing. A solution is not going to be found on Twitter."

The TPLF dominated politics in Ethiopia for nearly three decades before Abiy came to power in 2018 following anti-government protests.

Under Abiy, Tigrayan leaders have complained of being unfairly targeted in corruption prosecutions, removed from top positions and broadly scapegoated for the country's woes.

In previous weeks, tensions had been rising over control of military assets in the region.