Ethiopia sends troops into renegade northern province as long-simmering tensions explode

Ethiopia sends troops into renegade northern province as long-simmering tensions explode

A view in 2018 shows a street in Mekelle, capital of the Tigray region in northern Ethiopia. (Maggie Fick/Reuters)

By Ermias Tasfaye Daba and Lesley Wroughton

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia —(washingtonpost)— Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent troops into the northern Tigray province on Wednesday and declared a “military confrontation” after the regional government attacked a federal military base there.

In a statement, Abiy’s office accused the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the renegade province’s ruling party, of attempting to steal artillery and other military equipment during the attack.

Fighting in the continent’s second-most populous country could destabilize the whole sensitive Horn of Africa region. Citing diplomatic sources, Reuters reported heavy fighting in the mountainous province.

Ethiopia’s Council of Ministers declared a six month state of emergency in Tigray, asserting federal authority over the region. The TPLF once dominated Ethiopia’s ruling coalition before Abiy took office in 2018 and the party was sidelined.

Tensions with Tigray escalated in recent months after the region went ahead with its own local elections even though all polls were suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic. On Oct. 7, Ethiopian lawmakers voted to withhold budget support from Tigray, a move that one Tigrayan official said was “tantamount to a declaration of war.”

Most of Ethiopia’s military equipment is in Tigray because of a long-running war against neighboring Eritrea, which ended in 2018 when the countries signed a peace deal. Now, Abiy, who won the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize for his reform efforts in Ethiopia and peace overtures to Eritrea, is trying to dislodge the Tigrayan-linked old guard elements from the military.

“The last red line has been crossed with this morning’s attacks and the federal government is therefore forced into a military confrontation,” Abiy’s office said in the statement, citing what it called months of provocation and incitement. It said the mission was to “save the country and the region from spiraling instability.”

There was no official response from the TPLF, although Tigray TV reported that airspace was shut over the region. Internet and phone lines in Tigray were also down.

Both sides should immediately agree to a cease-fire, said William Davison, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, warning: “This war is the worst possible outcome of tensions that have been brewing.”

“Given Tigray’s relatively strong security position, the conflict may well be protracted and disastrous,” he said. A war could “seriously strain an Ethiopian state already buffeted by multiple grave political challenges and could send shock waves into the Horn of Africa region and beyond,” he added.

Conflict in Tigray would further increase instability in Ethiopia and add to a host of recent crises that Abiy’s government has faced, including tensions with Egypt over an Ethiopian dam project on the Blue Nile River and a locust outbreak across East Africa.

As the country has opened and political reforms have taken hold, ethnic and other political violence has also flared up. At least 54 people from the ethnic Amhara group were killed in a schoolyard by rebels on Sunday, according to Amnesty International. The government blamed the Oromo Liberation Army for the attack in the far western part of Oromia near the border with South Sudan.

DW International Oduu Afaan Oromoo. Nov 02/2020