NAIROBI/ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) – Residents of Ethiopia’s Amhara region said on Monday some young men were responding to a weekend call to arms by their president, as Amhara’s government denied that forces from neighbouring Tigray had advanced further into the region.
An eight-month-old war between Ethiopia’s central government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the party that controls Tigray, has spread to neighbouring parts of northern Ethiopia, risking a further destabilisation of Africa’s second most populous nation.
On Sunday Agegnehu Teshager, president of the Amhara regional government, had called on “all young people” to take up arms against TPLF fighters, who say they are advancing deeper south into Amhara territory.
A resident of the town of Debark, 40 km south of Zarima in northern Amhara, told Reuters by phone that he had seen young people and government employees lining up on Monday in response to the president’s call.
“For now, it is people who have weapons that are registering,” he said, adding that he had heard volunteers “will be given a short training”.
Conflict broke out between the Ethiopian central government and the TPLF in November. Three weeks later, the government seized control of Tigray’s capital Mekelle and declared victory.
But the TPLF kept fighting, and in a stunning reversal of fortunes at the end of June retook Mekelle and most of Tigray after government soldiers withdrew.
Last week, Tigrayan forces pushed into Afar, the region to the east of Tigray, where they said they planned to target Amhara troops fighting alongside the federal military.
Afar is home to the main highway and railway linking landlocked Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa with the sea port of Djibouti.
Getachew Reda, spokesperson for the TPLF, told Reuters on Monday its fighters had reached Zarima, about 140 km (87 miles) north of Gondar, one of Amhara’s largest cities.
“The last time I had communications with them was yesterday evening, they were in Zarima,” Getachew said. Earlier on Sunday, he said, the fighters had taken over the town of Chew Ber, which is about 115 km south of Adi Arkay, the first town in Amhara that Tigrayan fighters seized over the weekend.
Reuters was unable to independently verify his statement.
Gizachew Muluneh, spokesperson to the Amhara regional government, said in a text message the statement was “false propaganda”.
“All those areas you mentioned are under the control of our army, Amhara special forces and the militia,” said Gizachew.
Spokespeople for Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, the Ethiopian military and a government task force on Tigray did not return calls seeking comment.
Getachew said the Tigrayan forces would continue to advance despite a call by Abiy for mobilisation.
“We’ll go as far as we have to, we’ll move southward, westward, and eastward, we’ll continue to push as long as there is resistance,” he said.
RESIDENTS FLOOD SOUTH
Some residents said Amhara’s mobilisation efforts were facing organisational and logistical challenges.
“The public is mobilizing but there is no formal structure,” said a member of the part-time volunteer militia Fano, which has no formal command structure but sometimes works alongside the Amhara military.
“There is no one to organise the youth. There is no one to supply weapons, bullets and food,” he said by phone from the town of Humera, in Amhara-controlled western Tigray. He spoke on condition of anonymity.
Phone connections to Zarima and nearby towns were down, the Debark resident said, but people from Adi Arkay, Mai Tsebri, Zarima and Tsalemet towns were flooding into Debark, a town that usually serves as a gateway for tourists trekking in the dramatic Simien mountains.
Tigrayan forces have also advanced south and have said they would push west and try to restore their region’s pre-war boundaries. Western Tigray is currently controlled by Amhara forces, who say the land rightfully belongs to them.
Thousands of people have died in the war, around 2 million have been forced from their homes and more than 5 million depend on emergency food aid.
(Reporting by Dawit Endeshaw in Addis Ababa and Maggie Fick in Nairobi; Writing by Maggie Fick; Editing by Alex Richardson)