ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) – Ethiopia mobilised for war in the northern Tigray region on Thursday, dashing international hopes of averting a conflict between Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government and the powerful ethnic faction that led the ruling coalition for decades.
“Our country has entered into unexpected war… the war will not come to the centre, it will end there (in Tigray),” the deputy chief of the army, Birhanu Jula, said on state television.
Troops were being mustered from around the country and dispatched to Tigray, he said. The announcement followed clashes on Wednesday between government forces and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), after Abiy ordered retaliation for what the government described as a TPLF attack on its troops.
Tigray regional president Debretsion Gebremichael said its forces had foiled a plan by the federal troops to use artillery and arms stationed there to attack the region.
“We will use the artillery to defend Tigray. We will use them to destroy an attack from any direction,” he said on Tigray TV.
A humanitarian source in Tigray said shelling and shooting had been heard in the area since the early hours of Thursday, and nearly two dozen soldiers had been treated at a clinic near the border with the Amhara region. The source did not say which side of the conflict the injured troops were drawn from.
“At 5:20 a.m. we started to hear heavy shelling. Since then it has only stopped for an hour, but as of 2:00 p.m. you could still hear shooting, bombing and shelling,” the source said.
“So far nearly two dozens injured – all military, no civilians – were treated in the health centre of Abdurafi, located near the Tigray-Amhara border.”
The conflict pits government troops against the TPLF, for decades the dominant political force in the country’s multi-ethnic ruling coalition, until Abiy, a member of the Oromo ethnic group, took office two years ago.
Abiy, who has tried to open up what has long been one of the most restrictive economic and political systems in Africa, reorganised the ruling coalition into a single party which the TPLF refused to join.
Countries in the region fear that the crisis could escalate into all-out war under Abiy, who won the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize for ending a decades-old conflict with neighbouring Eritrea but has failed to prevent outbreaks of ethnic unrest.
GOVERNMENT RESISTS TALKS, DIPLOMATS SAY
Tensions with the TPLF have been escalating since September, when Tigray held regional elections which the federal government called illegal. In recent days, both sides accused each other of plotting a military conflict.
Sources said efforts were under way behind the scenes to encourage talks, pushed by the African Union. But the initiative was being resisted by the government which insists it has to eliminate a threat posed by the TPLF.
“The Ethiopians are saying it is an internal matter and they will handle it. They are saying it (TPLF) is a rogue element within their border and this is about the rule of law,” said a diplomatic source who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Redwan Hussein, spokesman for a newly-established State of Emergency Task Force, told Reuters on Wednesday that the option for talks was not yet on the table.
Dozens of federal troops were killed during the first day of fighting, one diplomat told Reuters, adding that the death toll could be higher. There was no word on casualties suffered by the TPLF. The government has cut all phone and internet communication in the region.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appeared to back Abiy in a tweet, which urged immediate action to restore peace and de-escalate the situation, while backing the government account that the TPLF was responsible for violence.
“We are deeply concerned by reports that the Tigray People’s Liberation Front carried out attacks on Ethiopian National Defense Force bases in Ethiopia’s Tigray region,” Pompeo wrote.
Ethiopia has suffered multiple outbreaks of violence since Abiy took office. At the weekend, gunmen killed 32 people and torched more than 20 houses in another part of the country, in the west.
(Additional reporting by David Lewis in Nairobi; Writing by Duncan Miriri; Editing by Peter Graff)