Ethiopia: troops will launch ‘final’ offensive against Tigray rebels, PM says | World news

Ethiopian troops will launch a “final and conclusive” offensive against rebel forces in the northern region of Tigray before the end of the week, the country’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, has warned.

In a series of social media posts on Tuesday, Abiy said that a three-day deadline for rebel troops to surrender had expired, paving the way for a final push on Mekelle, Tigray’s capital.

Abiy is under increasing pressure from African countries and international powers to end the two-week conflict, amid fears that the war will destabilise Ethiopia and the fragile Horn of Africa region.

At the weekend, Tigrayan forces fired missiles into the neighbouring country of Eritrea in an apparent attempt to internationalise the conflict and force outside intervention to bring it to an end.

The United Nations, the African Union and others have called for talks, but Abiy has resisted, saying the war in Tigray was irreversible and aimed at “enforcing the rule of law”.

Revolution

The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) topples Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, the head of a communist junta that ruled the country from 1974. The coalition group is led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), guerrilla fighters who marched from their homeland in Ethiopia’s north to the capital, Addis Ababa.

Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia proclaimed

The EPRDF sweeps to power in poorly contested elections, and the TPLF leader, Meles Zenawi, becomes Ethiopia’s prime minister. Tigrayans dominate senior ranks of government.


Ethnic federalism

Meles introduces a system that gives the country’s main ethnic groups the chance to govern the areas in which they dominate. Though Tigrayans make up about 5% of the population, they benefit disproportionately, other regions complain, as roads and other infrastructure are built in their sparsely populated area.

Meles dies

The prime minister dies in office and a successor from another ethnic group is appointed.


ERPDF divided

Divisions break out in the EPRDF over how quickly to pursue political reforms in response to street protests that threaten the coalition’s grip.

Abiy Ahmed comes to power

Abiy Ahmed, an Oromo, takes over as prime minister, winning praise at home and abroad for opening up one of Africa’s most restrictive political and economic systems.

Crackdowns

Tigrayans complain they are being persecuted in a crackdown on corruption and past abuses. Former senior military and political officials are put on trial.

Peace prize

Abiy is awarded the Nobel peace prize for his peacemaking efforts, which ended two decades of hostility with Eritrea. The TPLF continue to view Eritrea as an enemy.

Divisions

Ethiopia’s ruling coalition agrees to form a single party, but the TPLF refuses to merge with three other ethnic-based parties, calling the move rushed and undemocratic.

Election row

Tigray holds regional elections in defiance of the federal government, which postponed nationwide polls due in August because of Covid-19. Abiy’s government says the vote is illegal.

Funds withheld

The federal government starts to withhold some funds meant for social welfare programmes in Tigray, part of a plan to starve the regional authorities of cash in retaliation for the vote.

Fighting breaks out

Abiy sends troops into Tigray, accusing the TPLF of attacking federal troops based in the region. The TPLF accuses Abiy of punishing the region for the September vote. Reuters

Diplomats in Addis Ababa say Abiy is determined to oust the leaders of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPFL), the ruling party in Tigray, and impose a new government before ending the conflict.

But military experts say there is a significant risk that Ethiopian national troops could be drawn into a long and brutal guerrilla war against battle-hardened Tigrayans who are fighting in their mountainous homeland.

Ethiopian troops are believed to have taken control of the town of Alamata, which is six miles into Tigray from Amhara, the neighbouring province which is loyal to the central government and a launchpad for the offensive. Mekelle, the Tigrayan capital, remains 110 miles further north through rugged terrain.

Ethiopia map

“The three-day ultimatum given to Tigray special forces and the militia to surrender to the national defence … have ended today. Following the expiration of this deadline, the final critical act of law enforcement will be done in the coming days,” Abiy said in a statement posted on Facebook.

There was no immediate comment from Tigray’s leaders.

The warning came after air raids by government troops outside Mekelle.

The violence has raised international concern over the willingness of Abiy, who won the Nobel peace prize last year, to risk a lengthy civil war against well-armed forces in the region.

Though only 7 million people live in Tigray out of a total Ethiopian population of 110 million, much of the government troops’ equipment is kept in the province and Tigrayan forces could dig in as the military advanced into the more mountainous terrain towards Mekelle.

“I would guess as the Ethiopian army enter the highlands, heavier fighting is likely to start,” Matt Bryden, the founder of Sahan, a Nairobi-based regional thinktank, told Reuters.

With communications mostly down and media barred, it is not possible to independently verify assertions made by any side.The exact position of individual military units is also unclear.

Tigrayan leaders had accused the government of targeting a sugar factory and a dam.

Abiy launched military operations in Tigray 13 days ago after he accused local authorities of attacking a military camp and attempting to loot military assets. The TPLF denies the charge and has accused the prime minister of concocting the story to justify the offensive.

Since then, hundreds have been killed and tens of thousands displaced. As many as 25,000 refugees have arrived in Sudan, with the total growing by several thousand every day, United Nations officials said.

Debretsion Gebremichael, the leader of the TPLF, has called on the United Nations and African Union to condemn the offensive, accusing federal troops of “waging this war on the people of Tigray” with attacks on civilian infrastructure.

“We are not the initiators of this conflict and it is evident that Abiy Ahmed conducted this war as an attempt to consolidate his personal power,” he added, saying Ethiopia could become a failed state or disintegrate.

On Monday, Abiy sent his foreign minister to Uganda and Kenya to explain what the government describes as an internal conflict to leaders of those countries. Ethiopian officials said the visits did not mean negotiations had started.

Abiy was appointed leader of the ruling coalition of Ethiopia and so prime minister in 2018.

Though his sweeping reforms won widespread praise, they have allowed old ethnic and other grievances to surface.

The TPLF dominated Ethiopia’s governing coalition for decades before Abiy came to power, and Tigrayan leaders complained of being unfairly targeted in corruption prosecutions, removed from top positions and blamed for the country’s problems.

The postponement of national elections owing to the Covid-19 pandemic aggravated tensions and when parliamentarians in Addis Ababa voted to extend officials’ mandates, Tigrayan leaders went ahead with regional elections in September that Abiy’s government deemed illegal.

Ethiopia, Africa’s second most populous country, has long been a diplomatic heavyweight and corner stone of western policy in a region suffering extensive conflict, humanitarian need and extremism.


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