Ethiopian armed forces are “fully in control” of the city of Mekele after a Saturday offensive against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), according to a statement by the country’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed Ali.
The assault on the city marks the latest clash in a conflict between Ethiopia’s federal government and the TPLF, an Ethiopian political party, that began earlier this month when the TPLF launched what it called a preemptive strike against a federal military facility in Tigray, a region in northern Ethiopia. The federal government claimed the party hoped “to loot” the base, and responded to the attack with a full military offensive that is now pushing the country toward a massive humanitarian crisis.
Mekele, with a population of about half a million people, is the capital of Tigray, which is governed by the TPLF. The group dominated national politics in Ethiopia until Abiy became prime minister in 2018 and ushered in a series of reforms — including the dismissal of TPLF officials accused of corruption.
Last Sunday, Abiy delivered an ultimatum demanding the peaceful surrender of TPLF leaders “within the next 72 hours, recognizing that you are at a point of no return.” That deadline expired unmet, and Abiy responded with Saturday’s offensive.
According to the Washington Post, “a communications shutdown and bans on media access across most of Tigray has made verifying the government’s claims nearly impossible,” and relatively little is known so far about how the battle for Mekele was waged.
One major question is to what degree civilians were protected from the fighting — and details on this are contested. TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael has said that the city, including civilian areas, was under “heavy bombardment” Saturday before its capture by federal troops, and humanitarian groups have reportedly confirmed to news service Agence France-Presse that artillery was used.
These reports led US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Tibor Nagy to tweet that “fighting and shelling in the Mekele area are a very grave concern” on Saturday morning.
Fighting and shelling in the Mekele area are a very grave concern. We urge an immediate end to conflict and restoration of peace in Tigray. Civilians must be protected and humanitarian access provided to aid those in need.
— Tibor Nagy (@AsstSecStateAF) November 28, 2020
But a spokesman for Abiy contested the claim, telling the Guardian that “the Ethiopian National Defence Forces do not have a mission to bombard its own city and people.”
In a statement posted to Twitter, Abiy also claimed that Ethiopian National Defense Forces had “[undertaken] the operation with precision and due care for citizens ensuring civilians are not targeted.”
“The people of the Tigray Region have provided utmost support and cooperation to the Ethiopian National Defense Force in all corners,” he said.
Humanitarian groups have said they have not been allowed the necessary access to verify Abiy’s claims — although the federal government ordered aid routes to be established throughout Tigray on Thursday. The United Nations has warned that 6 million people in Tigray could soon be without sufficient food and water.
Abiy’s role in the crisis is especially remarkable given he won the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize after making a surprising peace with neighboring Eritrea. He has proved unable to defuse growing tensions with the TPLF, however — and now this new conflict has spilled into Eritrea too, with the TPLF launching a missile attack on the Eritrean capital of Asmara on November 14.
TPLF leader Debretsion told the Associated Press that Asmara was a “legitimate military target” because Eritrea sent troops into Ethiopia’s Tigray region — but it’s unclear if it actually did. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo condemned the attack in stark terms last week.
“We are deeply concerned by this blatant attempt by the TPLF to cause regional instability by expanding its conflict with Ethiopian authorities to neighboring countries,” Pompeo said in a statement. “We also continue to denounce the TPLF’s November 13 missile attacks on the Bahir Dar and Gondar airports in Ethiopia.”
It is clear, however, that tens of thousands of refugees have been forced to flee the fighting in Tigray — and that even before Saturday’s offensive, violence between the TPLF and Ethiopian federal forces was causing widespread humanitarian disaster.
The conflict is creating a “full scale” humanitarian crisis in the region
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) warned early last week that the flow of refugees out of Ethiopia was “rapidly overwhelming the humanitarian response capacity on the ground” in neighboring Sudan, and the agency said in a November 17 statement that as many as 4,000 people were crossing the border per day.
As of Saturday, according to Al Jazeera, about 43,000 refugees had already crossed into Sudan, and more than a million have been displaced by the fighting.
There have also been widespread reports of atrocities as the conflict continues. According to the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, Tigrayan security forces retreating from Ethiopian federal troops massacred at least 600 civilians from other ethnic groups in early November, and the EHRC says the eventual death toll could be even higher.
On the other side of the conflict, refugees in Sudan told the Washington Post of a “genocide against Tigray people.”
“They’re killing people madly,” one refugee said. “We saw a lot of dead people on the way. We didn’t bring any food or clothes — we just escaped to save our lives and our children’s lives.”
According to the UNHCR, as many as 100,000 Eritrean refugees living in the Tigray region could also be displaced yet again by this conflict, further worsening the crisis. And getting aid and services to these refugees has reportedly been all but made impossible by the fighting.
“The humanitarian situation as result of this crisis is growing rapidly,” UN spokesperson Babar Baloch said last week. “UNHCR reiterates its call for peace and urge all parties to respect the safety and security for all civilians in Tigray.”
Last week, Abiy promised to “reintegrate our fellow Ethiopians fleeing to neighboring countries” — though exactly how this will be accomplished is not yet clear. On Saturday, however, he said the federal government planned to immediately move into a restorative phase: “Our focus now will be on rebuilding the region and providing humanitarian assistance while Federal Police apprehend the TPLF clique.”