Hundreds dead in escalating Ethiopian conflict, sources say
The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which governs the region, is battle-hardened from both the 1998-2000 war with Eritrea and the guerrilla war to topple dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991. TPLF forces and militia allies number up to 250,000 men and possess significant hardware, experts say.
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.
They 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.
Billene Seyoum, spokeswoman for the prime minister’s office, said she was not authorised to comment in response to statements by the TPLF, and that information on the military campaign needed to be corroborated with the Ethiopian army.
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.
The army spokesman did not respond to phone calls seeking further comment.
‘AN EMPIRE CRUMBLING’
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.” Military helicopters flew northward.
On a road into Dansha from the neighbouring Amhara region – which supports the federal government – huts in a string of villages appeared abandoned.
In some parts, men in plain clothes with AK-47 assault rifles stood guard.
A senior diplomat working on the Ethiopia crisis said Abiy had increasingly fallen back on support from Amhara – raising the 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.
Will Davison, senior analyst at the International Crisis Group thinktank, said the TPLF might be capable of a strong counter-offensive. “The path to making the Tigrayan leadership surrender appears arduous,” he said.
Amid growing international concern, the TPLF has sought mediation by the African Union, according to a letter seen by Reuters. The United Nations wants Abiy – a former soldier who fought alongside Tigrayans against Eritrea – to start dialogue.
There are fears of reprisals against Tigrayans elsewhere, with 162 people including a journalist arrested in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa on suspicion of supporting Tigrayan forces.
All-out war would damage the 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.
But analysts do not believe the clashes will reawaken the conflict with Eritrea given that President Isaias Afwerki and Abiy both see the Tigrayan leadership as enemies.