Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said Tuesday the end of military operations in Ethiopia’s north is “coming within reach”, as the African Union called for an immediate ceasefire and thousands fled the violence into neighbouring Sudan.
The prime minister sent troops and air force jets into the northern Ethiopian region of Tigray last week in a campaign against the ruling party there, which has been at odds with Abiy’s government for months.
Abiy, last year’s Nobel Peace Prize laureate, said the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) had crossed a “red line” and attacked two federal military bases, something the regional party has denied.
Tigray has been under a communications blackout ever since, making it difficult to weigh competing claims about casualties, and who holds what territory.
Abiy said operations against the TPLF were “proceeding as planned”.
“Operations will cease as soon as the criminal junta is disarmed, legitimate administration in the region restored, and fugitives apprehended & brought to justice — all of them rapidly coming within reach,” he posted on Twitter.
But Moussa Faki Mahamat, chairman of the African Union Commission, said Tuesday the fighting must stop and said urgent dialogue was needed.
Appealing for “the immediate cessation of hostilities”, he urged the two sides “to respect human rights and ensure the protection of civilians”, offering the full support of the 55-member bloc.
Much of the fighting has reportedly been concentrated in western Tigray, near Ethiopia’s borders with Sudan and Eritrea.
Thousands of civilians and some soldiers have already fled the fighting and crossed west into Sudan, said Alsir Khaled, head of Sudan’s refugee agency in the eastern border town of Kassala.
“Around 3,000 refugees crossed over,” he told AFP on Tuesday, adding that around 30 Ethiopian soldiers who fled had turned themselves over to Sudanese authorities.
– Wider crisis –
The international community has expressed concern about the potential for a drawn-out conflict in Africa’s second most populous nation, pitting the powerful federal army against the large, battle-hardened force of the Tigray region.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres spoke with Abiy at the weekend after publicly calling for the immediate de-escalation of tensions, saying the stability of Ethiopia was critical for the entire Horn of Africa region.
Redwan Hussein, spokesman for an Ethiopian government committee on the Tigray crisis, said Tuesday that soldiers fighting on the northern front “had to retreat and even cross Eritrea” but had regrouped and were returning to Ethiopia.
The International Crisis Group has warned that prolonged fighting could draw in Eritrea, whose President Isaias Afwerki is close to Abiy and who is a “sworn enemy” of the TPLF, which ruled Ethiopia when it fought a war with Eritrea.
Tigray regional president Debretsion Gebremichael accused Afwerki on Tuesday of giving Ethiopia “considerable support to thwart our defensive war” including bombarding their positions with heavy weaponry.
The head of the Ethiopian army’s northern division, Major General Belay Seyoum, told national media on Tuesday evening that 550 enemy combatants had been killed and 29 captured so far.
State broadcasters also earlier reported that Ethiopia’s military had captured an airport near Humera, a town close to the border with Sudan and Eritrea, but the TPLF, through its own media, said this was false.
The western town of Dansha was under federal control when AFP journalists travelled there on Monday, but it has been impossible to verify the military’s claim that it controls other towns in the area.
– Bitter feud –
The Ethiopian Broadcasting Authority on Tuesday informed journalists accredited in Ethiopia that they would need to obtain a “supporting letter” before travelling to Tigray as well as “bordering conflict zones and different parts of the country”.
It said the measure was intended “for the safety of journalists and to get cooperation from local administrations and military officials on the ground.”
The TPLF dominated politics in Ethiopia for nearly three decades before Abiy came to power in 2018.
Under Abiy, Tigray’s leaders have complained of being unfairly targeted in corruption prosecutions, removed from top positions and broadly scapegoated for the country’s woes.
Abiy has accused the party of seeking to derail his reformist agenda, and sponsoring and arming militias bent on derailing the democratic transition he has pursued.