NAIROBI (Reuters) -Ethiopia’s rebellious Tigrayan forces have joined up with an Oromo force also fighting the central government, a spokesperson for the Tigrayan forces said on Monday, and said they were considering marching on the capital.
Reuters could not independently verify the statement as phone connections in the area were down. Government spokesperson Legesse Tulu, a military spokesperson, and an Amhara regional spokesperson did not respond immediately to requests for comment.
The forces from the northern region of Tigray say they have pushed further south into the neighbouring Amhara region this week in a bid to pressurise the central government to meet their demands, although the government disputes how far they have advanced.
If Tigrayan fighters join up with rebellious forces from Oromiya, Ethiopia’s most populous region, it could strengthen their ability to threaten the capital, a move that would deepen the conflict in Africa’s second most populous nation and increase turmoil in a volatile region.
“We have linked up with the OLF/OLA and if achieving our objectives in Tigray will require that we march to Addis Ababa, we will. But we are not saying we are marching to Addis Ababa,” Getachew Reda, a spokesperson for the forces led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), told Reuters.
The Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) is a banned armed group that splintered from the opposition party the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF). The Oromo are Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group; many of their political leaders are currently in jail.
The U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken United States expressed concern about Tigrayan advances on Monday, tweeting “Continued fighting prolongs the dire humanitarian crisis in northern Ethiopia. All parties must stop military operations and begin ceasefire negotiations without preconditions.”
This weekend Tigrayan forces said they had pushed further south and taken Kombolcha and Dessie, two towns on the A2 highway leading into Addis Ababa. Tens of thousands of ethnic Amharas had sought refuge from an escalation in fighting in Dessie.
The Ethiopian government denied Tigrayan forces had taken Dessie on Saturday, but on Monday they issued a statement accusing Tigrayan forces of killing 100 youths in Kombolcha, about 380 km (235 miles) north of Addis Ababa.
TPLF spokesman Getachew told Reuters by satellite phone from an undisclosed location: “We don’t have to kill the youth. There was no resistance in Kombolcha.”
Government spokesperson Legesse Tulu did not respond when asked by phone and message for a comment on Getachew’s statement.
The government did not provide any additional details for their claim, and phone lines to the area are down so Reuters was unable to reach residents in either town.
A Reuters witness counted at least three checkpoints within 50 kilometers on the A2 road on Monday, each manned by 50 federal police officers and assisted by militia forces.
One militia officer told Reuters the dragnet is to stop illegal migration into the capital, adding that they were only allowing those with valid resident permits for the capital to pass.
On Sunday, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed called on all citizens to mobilise. The Amhara regional government has issued a similar call, urging all citizens to join the fight.
The Tigrayan forces have been fighting the government for the past year in a widening war that first pitted federal troops against the TPLF, which dominated Ethiopian politics for nearly 30 years before Abiy was appointed in 2018.
The conflict has plunged around 400,000 people in Tigray into famine, killed thousands of civilians and forced more than 2.5 million people in northern Ethiopia to flee their homes.
(Reporting by Nairobi Newsroom; Additional reporting by Addis Ababa newsroom;Editing by Kim Coghill, Andrew Heavens and Giles Elgood and Marguerita Choy)