Hundreds killed in Ethiopia's Tigray conflict, military sources say
November 9, 2020 07:37 PM NPT
FILE PHOTO: Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed makes a statement on his official Facebook page, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, November 8, 2020, in this still image taken from a social media video. Office of the Prime Minister- Press Secretariat/via REUTERS
DANSHA, Nov 9: Ethiopia’s leader sought to reassure the world on Monday that his country was not heading for civil war despite an escalating military offensive against the restive Tigray region where security sources say hundreds have died in recent days.
The flare-up in the northern area bordering Eritrea and Sudan threatens to destabilise Africa’s second most populous nation where ethnic conflict has already killed hundreds since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took over in 2018.
“Ethiopia is grateful for friends expressing their concern. Our rule of law operation is aimed at guaranteeing peace and stability,” he tweeted on Monday.
“Concerns that Ethiopia will descend into chaos are unfounded and a result of not understanding our context deeply.”
The continent’s youngest leader at 44, Abiy won the Nobel Peace Price last year for democratic reforms and for making peace with Eritrea.
But last week Abiy, who comes from Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, the Oromo, launched a campaign against forces loyal to Tigrayan leaders whom he accused of attacking a military base in the town of Dansha.
Tigrayans account for just 5% of Ethiopians but had, before Abiy’s rule, dominated politics since rebels from their ethnic group toppled Marxist military rule in 1991.
Federal government fighter jets have been bombing targets including arms depots in Tigray.
A military official in Amhara told Reuters that clashes with Tigrayan forces in Kirakir, near the border between the regions of Tigray and Amhara, had killed nearly 500 Tigrayan forces.
Three security sources in Amhara said the Ethiopian army had also lost hundreds in the original battle in Dansha.
Reuters has been unable to verify numbers, though a diplomat also said hundreds were believed to have died. Aid workers confirmed at least six dead and dozens wounded in heavy fighting at the weekend.
The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which governs the region, are battle-hardened from both the 1998-2000 war with Eritrea and the guerrilla struggle to topple Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991.
TPLF forces and militia allies number up to 250,000 men and possess significant hardware, experts say.
Tigrayans say Abiy’s government has unfairly targeted them as part of a crackdown on past rights abuses and corruption.
“These fascists have demonstrated they will show no mercy in destroying Tigrayans by launching more than 10 air strike attempts in Tigrayan cities,” the TPLF said via Facebook.
The federal government has confirmed strikes targeting military installations, but Reuters could not verify the number.
The army said it was intensifying attacks and that large numbers of Tigrayan special forces and militia were surrendering. It denied a TPLF claim of downing a jet.
Abiy, a former soldier who fought alongside Tigrayans against Eritrea, has so far defied calls from the United Nations and others to negotiate.
Journalists including from Reuters were turned away from the Dansha base on Monday by soldiers citing safety concerns.
Outside the base, SUVs and pickups were filled with soldiers and a black metal sign read: “Let’s build one democratic country together.” Two military helicopters flew northward.
On a road into Dansha from the neighbouring Amhara region - which is backing the federal government - huts in a string of villages appeared abandoned.
In some parts, men in plain clothes with AK-47s stood guard.
A senior diplomat working on the Ethiopia crisis said Abiy had increasingly fallen back on support from Amhara - fuelling risk of more ethnic violence - after parts of the military’s Northern Command went over to Tigrayan control.
“Ethiopia is like an empire crumbling before our own eyes,” the diplomat told Reuters. “I think he (Abiy) has crossed the Rubicon. He is leading his country over a cliff.”
There are also fears of reprisals against Tigrayans elsewhere, with 162 people arrested in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa on Sunday on suspicion of supporting the Tigrayan forces.
All-out war would damage Ethiopia’s economy after years of steady growth in the nation of 110 million people. It could also add to the hundreds of thousands displaced in the last two years.