Fall Of Tigray Capital Marks New Phase Of Ethiopia War

Rebel fighters in Ethiopia’s war-hit Tigray seized control of more territory on June 29, 2021, one day after retaking the local capital and vowing to drive all “enemies” out of the region. (Photo by Yasuyoshi Chiba / AFP)

 

 

Rebel fighters in Ethiopia’s war-hit Tigray stunned the world this week by retaking the regional capital Mekele, sparking boastful statements by their leaders and rowdy street celebrations by their supporters.

It came exactly seven months after those same fighters were driven out by the army of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, a Nobel Peace Prize winner who now finds himself mired in an ugly war.

Abiy’s government has since announced a unilateral ceasefire, while the rebels have gone on to seize most of Tigray, the northernmost region of Ethiopia.

As the UN Security Council is expected to hold its first public meeting on Friday on the conflict, world leaders are mulling what comes next — and whether worst-case humanitarian scenarios can be avoided.

– How the tide turned –
Abiy sent troops into Tigray last November, saying the move came in response to attacks on federal army camps by the region’s ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).

In the first weeks of fighting the army encountered little resistance as it entered towns and cities including Mekele, prompting Abiy to declare victory before the month was over.

Yet federal forces never fully achieved the operation’s stated goals: detaining and disarming the TPLF’s leaders.

The Tigrayan forces managed to regroup, drawing from deep support among the population to mount an effective insurgency — something Abiy himself acknowledged in a speech Tuesday.

“When the army passed through a village without witnessing any movement of the enemy, many people suddenly came from behind and attacked and massacred the army using Kalashnikovs or even machetes,” Abiy said.

The rebels — having rebranded themselves the Tigray Defence Forces (TDF) — launched a major counter-offensive last month that coincided with national elections expected to deliver Abiy a new term.

The blitz — named Operation Alula after a 19th-century Tigrayan general — yielded dramatic gains within days.

– Clashing narratives –
The TDF has unsurprisingly touted the events of recent days as evidence of its battlefield superiority.

This week, though, Abiy and other top officials tried to downplay the significance of the army’s pullback.

Abiy said Mekele had “lost its centre of gravity” and was no longer worth holding.

Redwan Hussein, spokesman for an Ethiopian government task force on the conflict, said the rebels were “no longer an existential threat to the wellbeing of the nation” and insisted Ethiopia needed to focus on other security challenges.

Such statements smack of “face-saving justifications”, said William Davison, senior analyst for the International Crisis Group.

“The war was undoubtedly burdensome for the federal government. Yes, they do have other things that they would like to focus on. But I think that the withdrawal comes from a position of weakness,” he said.

At the same time, he added, the TDF has likely “exaggerated” the damage it has inflicted on federal forces.

– Future flashpoints –
Throughout the eight-month conflict, Abiy has leaned on firepower from neighbouring Eritrea, which borders Tigray to the north, and Ethiopia’s Amhara region to the south.

So far, Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki’s government has yet to comment on Ethiopia’s ceasefire announcement.

The Eritreans have been involved in some of the conflict’s most gruesome massacres, and the United States and the European Union have repeatedly insisted they must leave.

Redwan said this week they already had, and the UN’s humanitarian coordination office reported Thursday that they had largely “retreated from Tigray” back towards the Ethiopia-Eritrea border.

TDF spokesman Getachew Reda this week called the federal government’s ceasefire declaration “a joke”, telling AFP that rebel fighters were prepared to chase the Eritreans all the way back to Asmara in order “to secure Tigray,” though it is unclear whether that is their top priority.

Instead, at least in the immediate term, they might focus on Amhara forces who have annexed parts of western and southern Tigray and who have shown no sign of leaving.

“It seems very unlikely that the Tigray Defence Forces is going to embrace any region-wide ceasefire whilst that presence continues,” Davison said.

– Aid woes –
As further conflict looms, the international community is increasingly preoccupied with the dire humanitarian situation in Tigray.

The United States estimates 900,000 civilians are “likely already experiencing famine conditions”.

On Thursday, the UN and aid groups confirmed the destruction of a critical bridge allowing aid into Tigray, intensifying fears about a possible “blockade”.

The UN said the bridge was “reportedly” blown up by Amhara special forces, but the government on Friday blamed Tigrayan forces.

Officials in Addis Ababa have long stressed their willingness to allow aid into Tigray and provide aid themselves.

They say the ceasefire declaration was partly motivated by a desire to facilitate farming.

But with electricity and telecommunications cut off, flights suspended and most roads into the region now impassable, UN officials and diplomats fear the situation could deteriorate further.

“A ceasefire doesn’t mean cutting a region off power or destroying critical infrastructure,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said on Twitter Friday.

“A credible ceasefire means doing everything possible so that aid reaches the millions of children, women and men who urgently need it.”

At Least 64 Killed In Ethiopian Air Strike On Tigray Market

(FILES) In this file photo taken on December 11, 2020 Youngsters walk next to an abandoned tank belonging to Tigrayan forces south of the town of Mehoni, Ethiopia. – US President Joe Biden condemned the six-month conflict in Ethiopia’s war-hit Tigray region May 26, 2021 calling for a ceasefire and declaring that human rights abuses “must end.” (Photo by EDUARDO SOTERAS / AFP)

 

 

At least 64 people were killed and 180 injured in an Ethiopian air strike on a market in the war-torn Tigray region, a local health official told AFP Thursday.

“The air strike was in the market area, so many, many people were injured,” said Mulu Atsbaha, an advisor to the Tigray regional administration on maternal and child health.

The strike on Tuesday in Togoga town also left 180 injured, Mulu added.

He said the toll had been gathered from residents of Togoga town, 30 kilometres (18 miles) north-west of the regional capital Mekele, and “confirmed with local leaders”.

Ethiopia’s army spokesman said Thursday that the military carried out the attack on Togoga, but said rebel fighters were the target.

“We do not accept that this operation targeted civilians,” Colonel Getnet Adane told AFP, insisting that those injured or killed were fighters “in civilian clothes”.

But survivors and health workers described aerial explosions striking a busy market at the peak of trading, killing and injuring dozens, including children.

The United Nations has called for an urgent investigation into the strike.

The attack came as vote counting was underway following Monday’s national elections in Ethiopia. However, the conflict in Tigray meant no vote was held there, and the region has seen an upsurge in fighting in recent days.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent troops to Tigray in November to oust the dissident regional leadership, promising a swift victory.

But nearly eight months later, fighting continues, which has triggered a humanitarian crisis with the UN warning 350,000 people are on the brink of famine.

Over 30,000 Children Risk Death In Famine-Hit Tigray: UN

A boy splashes himself with water in the Atbarah river near the village of Dukouli within the Quraysha locality, located in the Fashaqa al-Sughra agricultural region of Sudan’s eastern Gedaref state on March 16, 2021. (Photo by ASHRAF SHAZLY / AFP)

 

 

Tens of thousands of malnourished children risk dying in hard-to-reach areas of Ethiopia’s conflict-wracked Tigray region, now hit by famine, the United Nations said Friday.

“Without humanitarian access to scale up our response, an estimated 30,000-plus severely malnourished children in those highly inaccessible areas are at high risk of death,” UNICEF spokesman James Elder told reporters in Geneva.

His comments came after the UN on Thursday said some 350,000 people in Tigray were facing famine, while two million more people were just a step away from those extreme conditions.

“There is famine now in Tigray,” UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock said, warning that “every expert you speak to will tell you this is going to get a lot worse”.

Lowcock said fresh data showed the number of people classified as being in famine conditions was “higher than anywhere in the world at any moment since a quarter of a million Somalis lost their lives in 2011”.

The UN has said that more than 90 percent of the more than five million people in the Tigray region need emergency food aid, and has urgently appealed for more than $200 million to scale up its response.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, sent troops into the northern region in November to detain and disarm leaders of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the region’s former ruling party.

He said the move came in response to TPLF attacks on federal army camps.

Though he vowed the conflict would be brief, fighting continues more than six months later and reports of atrocities — including the widespread use of rape — are proliferating. Many leaders have warned of a major catastrophe.

The United States and the European Union on Thursday issued a plea for greater international efforts to tackle the emerging famine.

International aid organisations have complained repeatedly that they are being denied access to the region by Ethiopian forces and troops from neighbouring Eritrea.

Over 90% In Ethiopia’s Tigray Need Emergency Food Aid: UN

(FILES) In this file photo taken on December 12, 2020 Ethiopian refugee children who fled the Ethiopia’s Tigray conflict wait in a line for a food distribution by Muslim Aid at the Um Raquba refugee camp in Sudan’s eastern Gedaref state. (Photo by Yasuyoshi CHIBA / AFP)

 

 

More than 90 percent of people in Ethiopia’s war-torn Tigray region need emergency food aid, the United Nations said Tuesday, as it appealed for $203 million to scale up its response.

The UN World Food Programme voiced alarm that conflict had caused an increase in hunger levels that were already high in the northern region.

“A total of 5.2 million people, equivalent to 91 percent of Tigray’s population, need emergency food assistance due to the conflict,” WFP spokesman Tomson Phiri told reporters in Geneva.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, sent troops into Tigray in November to detain and disarm leaders of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the region’s former ruling party.

He said the move came in response to TPLF attacks on federal army camps.

Though he vowed the conflict would be brief, more than six months later fighting continues, reports of atrocities are proliferating, and many leaders are warning of a potential humanitarian catastrophe.

The WFP said it had provided emergency aid to more than a million people since it started distributions in northwestern and southern areas of Tigray in March.

“WFP is alarmed at the impact of conflict on already high levels of hunger,” Phiri said.

“We are deeply concerned at the number of people we see in need of nutrition support and emergency food assistance.

“The WFP is calling for $203 million to continue to scale up its response in Tigray to save lives and livelihoods through to the end of the year.”

– ‘Serious’ famine risk –
Last week, a senior UN official warned the UN Security Council that urgent measures were needed to avoid famine in the war-torn region of Tigray in Ethiopia, in a briefing seen by AFP.

“There is a serious risk of famine if assistance is not scaled up in the next two months,” wrote Mark Lowcock, the UN’s top emergency relief coordinator.

He estimated that “over 90 percent of the harvest was lost due to looting, burning, or other destruction, and that 80 percent of the livestock in the region were looted or slaughtered.”

The WFP said the instability was undermining the efforts of humanitarian workers to reach vulnerable communities in Tigray, especially in rural areas.

“A ceasefire and unimpeded access are vital for WFP and all its partners in Tigray to reach all areas and all people desperately in need of life-saving support,” Phiri said.

Meanwhile, the WFP spokesman said the agency was witnessing growing levels of malnourishment among women and children.

WFP found that almost half of pregnant or breastfeeding mothers in 53 villages were either moderately or acutely malnourished, while almost a quarter of all children screened were found to be malnourished.

Eritrean troops, who teamed up with the Ethiopian military, have been implicated in multiple massacres and other atrocities during the Tigray conflict, allegations that Asmara denies.

Tigray Crisis: The Weeknd To Donate $1m Toward Ethiopian Relief Efforts

The Weeknd

 

Renowned Popstar, The Weeknd, is lending a helping hand to Ethiopians amid violence in the country.

Born, Abel Makkonen Tesfaye, the Grammy-Award winning artist said that he will donate $1 million to Ethiopian relief efforts through the UN World Food Programme.

He announced this via a post on his social media handles and called for donations from those willing to join him in providing meals through the United Nations World Food Programme.

“My heart breaks for my people of Ethiopia as innocent civilians ranging from small children to the elderly are being senselessly murdered and entire villages are being displaced out of fear and destruction.

“I will be donating $1 million to provide 2 million meals through the United Nations World Food Programme and encourage those who can to please give as well,” he said on his Instagram and Twitter accounts.

 

 

Thousands of civilians are believed to have been killed, raped, and abused and tens of thousands fled into neighbouring Sudan during the course of the Tigray crisis.

The conflict was a result of long-simmering tensions between Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s federal government and the region’s former rulers, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) – the dominant force in Ethiopian politics until Abiy came to power in 2018.

Ethiopian, Eritrean Troops Behind Possible ‘War Crimes’ In Tigray: UN

People gather to mourn the victims of a massacre allegedly perpetrated by Eritrean Soldiers in the village of Dengolat, North of Mekele, the capital of Tigray on February 26, 2021. 
EDUARDO SOTERAS / AFP

 

The UN rights chief said Thursday that her office had corroborated grave violations that could amount to “war crimes and crimes against humanity” in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, including by Eritrean troops.

Michelle Bachelet stressed in a statement the urgent need for an independent investigation into the situation in Tigray, which has been rocked by months of fighting.

Her office had “managed to corroborate information about some of the incidents that occurred in November last year, indicating indiscriminate shelling in Mekelle, Humera and Adigrat towns in Tigray region”.

It had also verified “reports of grave human rights violations and abuses including mass killings in Axum, and in Dengelat in central Tigray by Eritrean armed forces”, it said.

A preliminary analysis of the information indicated that “serious violations of international law, possibly amounting to war crimes and crimes against humanity, may have been committed by multiple actors in the conflict”, the statement warned.

Those actors included the Ethiopian National Defence Forces, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), Eritrean armed forces, and Amhara Regional Forces and affiliated militia, it said.

“With multiple actors in the conflict, blanket denials and finger-pointing, there is a clear need for an objective, independent assessment of these reports,” Bachelet said.

 

Women mourn the victims of a massacre allegedly perpetrated by Eritrean Soldiers in the village of Dengolat, North of Mekele, the capital of Tigray on February 26, 2021.
EDUARDO SOTERAS / AFP

– ‘Deeply distressing’ –

She urged the Ethiopian government to grant her office and other United Nations investigators access to Tigray “with a view to establishing the facts and contributing to accountability, regardless of the affiliation of perpetrators”.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights pointed out that her office was continuing to receive information of ongoing fighting in central Tigray in particular.

She lamented “deeply distressing reports of sexual and gender-based violence, extrajudicial killings, widespread destruction and looting of public and private property by all parties”.

“Without prompt, impartial and transparent investigations and holding those responsible accountable, I fear violations will continue to be committed with impunity, and the situation will remain volatile for a long time to come,” she said.

Bachelet also voiced concern at the detentions this week in Tigray of journalists and translators working for local and international media, including AFP.

While they had been released, she pointed to worrying remarks by a government official that those responsible for “misleading international media” would be held responsible.

“Victims and witnesses of human rights violations and abuses must not be hindered from sharing their testimony for fear of reprisals,” she said.

Tigray has been gripped by fighting since early November 2020, when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced military operations against the TPLF, accusing them of attacking federal army camps.

Abiy — who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 — declared victory after pro-government troops took the regional capital Mekele in late November, although the TPLF vowed to fight on, and clashes have persisted in the region.

The presence of Eritrean troops in the Tigray conflict has been widely documented but has been denied by both countries.

-AFP

Ethiopia’s Tigray Region Hit By Power Blackout

An Ethiopian man, who fled Ethiopia’s Tigray conflict as a refugee, watches the rising Moon on top of a hill at Um Raquba refugee camp in Gedaref, eastern Sudan, on December 1, 2020. (Photo by Yasuyoshi CHIBA / AFP)

 

Ethiopia’s conflict-torn northern Tigray region has been hit by an electricity blackout, the government said Wednesday, blaming the outage on the ousted ruling party in the semi-autonomous zone.

Tigray has been the theatre of fighting since early November 2020, when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced military operations against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), accusing them of attacking federal army camps.

He declared victory after pro-government troops took regional capital Mekele in late November, though the TPLF vowed to fight on, and clashes have persisted in the region, hampering efforts to deliver sorely-needed humanitarian assistance.

In a press statement, the state utility firm Ethiopia Electricity Power (EEP) said TPLF “remnants” had attacked a high-voltage line carrying electricity to Mekele, “causing total electricity blackout in the region”.

The statement didn’t mention the date of the alleged attack, however a resident of Mekele told AFP the power had gone out on Tuesday evening.

The resident said fear was growing in the capital of an offensive by the TPLF, with security forces reportedly digging trenches on the outskirts of the city.

He said tension was high, with red and yellow flags associated with the TPLF and red and yellow balloons cropping up around the city in recent days.

TPLF spokesman Getachew Reda on Tuesday gave an interview to a US-based television station, denying they were planning an imminent offensive.

“Currently, we’re not in a hurry to free our cities. The cities are our own. We will do the utmost effort to ensure our cities can’t be centres of destruction,” Getachew told the Tigrai Media House (TMH).

Separately on Wednesday, The Tigray council of religious institutions — representing Ethiopian Orthodox, Catholic, Islamic and evangelical churches — issued a statement calling for the withdrawal of forces from Eritrea and neighbouring Amhara regional state from the region.

Eritrea and Ethiopia deny that Eritrean soldiers are involved in the Tigray conflict.

But their presence has been described by residents, aid workers and even some civilian and military officials in Tigray.

“The Ethiopian federal government should force the Eritrean and Amhara region security forces to leave the Tigray region. These two forces have committed widespread rapes, looting, killings as well as engaged in the destruction of infrastructure and religious sites,” the statement said.

It also condemned the partial destruction of al-Nejashi Mosque, one of the oldest mosques on the continent, and referred to alleged damage to Debre-Damo, one of the region’s famed clifftop monasteries, believed to date back to the sixth century.

Tigray has been cut off from the internet since the start of the conflict.

The United Nations’ humanitarian agency OCHA said last week that “much of the rural areas, where 80 percent of the population lived prior to the conflict, remain cut off from humanitarian assistance.”

The Week in Pictures: Christmas, COVID-19 Vaccines And Refugees

This picture taken in Paris on December 22, 2020 shows a Christmas Santa Claus decoration, with a protective mask. (Photo by JOEL SAGET / AFP)

 

 

Santa in a snow globe, child choristers at St Paul’s Cathedral, An Ethiopian refugee who fled the Tigray conflict praying during Sunday Mass, and much more that happened around the world in pictures.

 

 

Norway’s Halvor Egner Granerud competes in the men’s FIS Ski Jumping World Cup competition in Engelberg, central Switzerland, on December 19, 2020. (Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP)

 

Lebanese launch lanterns in Beirut’s Gemmayzeh neighbourhood on December 20, 2020, during the lighting of a Christmas tree in memory of the victims of the devastating port blast in that took place in the capital’s port in August. (Photo by ANWAR AMRO / AFP)

 

Members of the Afghan security forces stand at the site of an attack, in Kabul on December 20, 2020. – A car bomb killed eight people and wounded more than 15 others in Kabul on December 20, officials said, the latest attack to rock the Afghan capital. (Photo by Zakeria HASHIMI / AFP)

 

Syrian-Armenian potter Misak Antranik Petros uses an ancient pottery wheel to churn different types of pots at his workshop located inside an ancient mud-brick house near the city of Qamishli in Syria’s northeastern Hasakeh province, on December 19, 2020. – Petros was only a teenager when he had to take over for his sick father and become the main potter of the family. He has since become a master of the craft and is keen to pass his skills on. (Photo by Delil SOULEIMAN / AFP)

 

A medical worker tends to a patient in the sub-intensice care unit of the Tor Vergata hospital in Rome on December 21, 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus. (Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP)

 

A woman pays respects to a victim of the war over Karabakh, during a gathering for a memorial ceremony, at the Yerablur Military Memorial Cemetery in Yerevan, on December 19, 2020. – Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan led, on December 19, 2020, thousands in a march in memory of those killed in a six-week war with Azerbaijan as the Caucasus country began three days of mourning. Pashinyan has been under huge pressure from the opposition to step down after nearly 3,000 Armenians were killed in the clashes with Azerbaijan over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh. (Photo by Karen MINASYAN / AFP)

 

A protester from the Nepalese Students Union, which is affiliated with the opposition Congress party shouts slogans during a demonstration after the parliament was abruptly dissolved in Kathmandu on December 20, 2020. (Photo by Prakash MATHEMA / AFP)

 

This photo taken on December 21, 2020 shows people watching a performer during a pole dancing competition amid temperatures of minus 30 degrees Celsius in Mohe, in northeastern China’s Henglongjiang province. (Photo by STR / AFP) 

 

A man dressed in a Santa Claus outfit, wearing a face shield and kneeling behind a transparent barrier amid concerns over the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, gestures to a girl at a shopping mall with Christmas decorations in Kuala Lumpur on December 22, 2020. (Photo by Mohd RASFAN / AFP)

 

This picture taken in Paris on December 22, 2020 shows a Christmas Santa Claus decoration, with a protective mask. (Photo by JOEL SAGET / AFP)

 

Maryland Cremation Services transporter Reggie Elliott brings the remains of a Covid-19 victim to his van from the hospital’s morgue in Baltimore, Maryland on December 24, 2020 during the Covid-19 pandemic.  (Photo by Andrew CABALLERO-REYNOLDS / AFP)

 

US President-elect Joe Biden receives a Covid-19 vaccination from Tabe Mase, Nurse Practitioner and Head of Employee Health Services, at the Christiana Care campus in Newark, Delaware on December 21, 2020. (Photo by ALEX EDELMAN / AFP)

 

The Eiffel Tower is reflected in a puddle as a man runs, on December 24, 2020 in Paris. (Photo by Martin BUREAU / AFP)

 

A surfer wipes out at Pipeline on the north shore of Oahu, Hawaii, on December 24, 2020. (Photo by Brian Bielmann / AFP) / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE

 

An Ethiopian refugee who fled the Tigray conflict prays during Sunday Mass at an Ethiopian Orthodox church built by former Ethiopian refugees near the Um Raquba refugee camp in Gedaref, eastern Sudan, on Dec. 6. Thousands of Tigrayan refugees from Ethiopia have fled across the border into Sudan with stories of atrocities committed during a spiraling conflict. — Tasuyoshi Chiba / AFP

 

 

Santa chats with a child in Seattle. Known as the Seattle Santa, he is usually booked for private events but is set up this year in a socially-distanced snow globe. — David Ryder

 

A guard holds his pistol while transferring a bag of cash to an armored vehicle in Johannesburg on Dec. 8.  — Michele Spatari / AFP

 

 

Santa Claus waves at visitors as he hangs from the cable car on Sugarloaf Mountain in Rio de Janeiro on Dec. 5. — Mauro Pimentel / AFP

 

 

This photograph taken in December 11, 2020 shows a health worker statute placed in front of Basilica of St Francis in Assisi. – Each evening during Christmas in addition a statue of a nurse will be placed in a crib in front of the Basilica, homage to Italy’s health workers for their heroic efforts during the Covid-19 emergency. (Photo by Tiziana FABI / AFP)

 

Choristers from the St. Paul’s Choir pose for photographers during a photo call at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, England, on December 14, 2020. (PHOTO: Leon Neal)

‘Terrified’ Survivors Recount Attacks On Civilians In Tigray

Ethiopian refugees who fled fighting in Tigray province are pictured at a reception centre in Sudan’s eastern Gedaref province, on November 17, 2020. (Photo by Ebrahim HAMID / AFP)

 

The first shells landed before dawn, crashing through tin-roofed mud homes and sending Jano Admasi’s neighbours fleeing for the cacti-dotted hills around her village in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region.

Jano, a soft-spoken woman in her sixties, tried to escape as well, running with her eldest son, 46-year-old Miskana, along a dirt road leading out of the village.

But on the way, she says, they encountered Ethiopian government soldiers who turned them around, forcing them into a nearby house with two other terrified families.

What happened next, described by three eyewitnesses but denied by the Ethiopian government, casts doubt on Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s claim that his military offensive in Tigray has been prosecuted with special care for civilian lives.

In an apparent rage, the soldiers accused Miskana and two other men in the group of aiding the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), whose leaders are the target of the military operations ordered last month.

“They asked us who we were, and we said we are just farmers and elderly women,” Jano told AFP. “They came back again and said ‘Get out’, and separated the men from the women.”

The soldiers made the men including Miskana sit down and, before Jano fully realised what was happening, shot them dead with Kalashnikov rifles.

A 15-year-old boy who leapt in front of a bullet in a futile bid to save his father was also killed.

The killings — which took place on November 14, 10 days after Abiy announced the offensive — represent just one incident of civilian suffering in Bisober, a farming village home to roughly 2,000 people in southern Tigray.

In the three days it took federal forces to wrest control of the village from the TPLF, 27 civilians died, according to local officials and residents: 21 from shelling and six in extrajudicial killings.

The government has tightly restricted access to the region, making it difficult to assess the toll of a conflict the UN warns is “spiralling out of control”.

But AFP recently obtained exclusive access to southern Tigray, where residents of multiple towns and villages accused both government and pro-TPLF combatants of, at best, putting civilians in harm’s way — and, at worst, actively targeting them.

Survivors told AFP they dreaded how many civilians could have died across Tigray.

“If in just this one area you have this much destruction,” said Bisober resident Getachew Abera, “then imagine what might have happened generally.”

The military did not respond to a request for comment.

Ethiopia’s democratisation minister Zadig Abraha told AFP that any claims that Ethiopian soldiers killed civilians were “false”.

Village warfare

In retrospect, Bisober residents say, the first sign of the conflict came seven months ago, when members of the Tigray Special Forces took over the village’s elementary school, which had been emptied because of the coronavirus pandemic.

By early November, when the first shots were fired, some 250 pro-TPLF troops were encamped there, digging trenches behind classrooms and storing weapons in what was once the principal’s office.

The Tigrayan fighters’ decision to base themselves in the centre of Bisober helps explain the carnage that ensued, said Getachew Nega, the village administrator.

“The TPLF lost hope and they came and put heavy weapons and other weapons in this village. They shouldn’t have done this,” Getachew said.

Once the fighting started, Tigrayan combatants broke into abandoned homes from which they fired on Ethiopian soldiers, witnesses said, inviting massive damage.

Across Bisober, shelling from both sides tore open the walls of concrete homes and destroyed mud homes altogether, leaving only metal roofs behind.

“The conflict was a sudden act. Both parties had their missions, and we were caught in between,” said Said Idriss, a member of a newly-formed command post trying to restore order in the area.

“They could have asked the people to leave earlier.”

‘Like spilt water’

Today Bisober is relatively calm, with many residents labouring in nearby sorghum fields, trying to salvage this year’s harvest.

Security is provided by special forces from the neighbouring Afar region, who use rags to clean their guns while lazing under acacia trees in a makeshift camp on the outskirts of the village.

Abiy declared victory in Tigray in late November after federal forces reportedly seized the regional capital Mekele, but the TPLF has vowed to fight on and the UN has recently reported persistent clashes throughout the region.

Human rights organisations are calling for thorough, independent investigations of the violence — though Abiy is resisting the idea.

Government spokesman Redwan Hussein told a press conference last week that outside investigators would be allowed in only “when the Ethiopian government feels that it failed to investigate” on its own.

Ethiopia “doesn’t need a babysitter,” he added.

Jano, for her part, has little time for such debates.

She can’t shake the memory of watching soldiers shoot her son in front of her, and of waiting in the street with his body for two full days, unsure what to do.

“We didn’t cry. We were too terrified. We were trembling with fear,” she said.

Instead of worrying about whether the perpetrators will be held to account, she said she is focused on trying to rebuild her life and care for Miskana’s three children.

“I already lost my son and he’s not coming back,” she said.

“It’s like spilt water, you cannot get it back.”

Ethiopia Insists It Will Control Aid To Troubled Tigray

Ethiopia’s newly elected Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed

 

Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed insisted Friday that his government would take the lead in delivering aid to Tigray, where his troops have been fighting forces loyal to the regional government.

Nearly four weeks after ordering soldiers to dislodge the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which rules the northern region, Abiy declared victory on November 28.

The United Nations and aid agencies have been unable to access the region since the start of fighting and are deeply worried over the plight of civilians and refugees — as well as their own staff on the ground — and have called for unfettered access.

Abiy, the winner of last year’s Nobel Peace Prize, said Friday that his government was capable of providing humanitarian assistance, and would be in charge of what aid was delivered and where.

“The delivery of assistance lies within a coordination framework under the federal government’s overall authority,” he said.

Abiy added that, because of ongoing insecurity, “access will be coordinated in consultation with the federal government.”

Any suggestion his government was not “committed to ensuring that vulnerable communities in Tigray region are provided the necessary humanitarian assistance” was, Abiy said, part of a “misinformation campaign”.

In his statement, Abiy listed truckloads of food and medicine he said was being sent to Tigray.

– Aid without ‘discrimination’ –

An agreement last week to allow the UN and aid agencies access to Tigray foundered, deepening international alarm.

Ethiopia has bridled at suggestions that outsiders might play a leading role in assisting a population that suffered under nearly a month of conflict between federal and regional forces.

The government has repeatedly insisted that its “rule of law operations” in Tigray are aimed solely at the TPLF leadership, not Tigrayan civilians.

Nevertheless, thousands have been killed since fighting began, according to the International Crisis Group think tank, and around 50,000 people have fled to refugee camps across the border in Sudan.

This week, the UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet said the conflict was having an “appalling impact on civilians,” including multiple reports of ethnic massacres and ethnic targeting.

Announcing a fresh agreement with Ethiopia on humanitarian access on Wednesday, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres promised the deal will “make sure that there is full access to the whole of the territory, but emphasised that this must happen “without any kind of discrimination.”

– Risky assistance –

In a sign of the depth of tensions over where and how aid agencies should operate in Tigray, a UN team was shot at by Ethiopian forces on Sunday and briefly detained, a government spokesman said this week.

He said the team ignored instructions and drove through checkpoints before being fired on, and blamed them for the incident, saying they had embarked on “a kind of adventurous expedition”.

The risks faced by international aid agencies were underscored on Friday when the Danish Refugee Council confirmed the deaths of three of its security guards last month, and the International Rescue Committee (IRC) said one staff member had been killed.

An estimated 600,000 people in Tigray were dependent on food aid before the fighting began, including 96,000 refugees from neighbouring Eritrea.

A government communications blackout combined with tight restrictions on access to Tigray has made it very difficult for aid agencies to confirm the whereabouts and safety of their staff in the area, as well as the refugees and civilians they support.

“Communication with the area is extremely difficult and we are still working to gather and confirm the details surrounding the events,” the IRC said.

Despite last month’s victory declaration, the UN and aid agencies have said fighting continues — but Abiy dismissed these reports as false.

“Suggestions that humanitarian assistance is impeded due to active military combat… is (sic) untrue and undermines the critical work undertaken by the National Defence Forces to stabilise the region,” he said.

Abiy characterised the ongoing hostilities as “sporadic gunfire… (that) need not be misconstrued as active conflict.”

The communications blackout and restrictions make it impossible to independently verify claims regarding the nature of any ongoing fighting.

Ethiopia Conflict ‘Spiralling Out Of Control’- UN

A family of Ethiopian refugees who fled the Tigray conflict rests in a makeshift shelter at the Border Reception Centre in Hamdayet, eastern Sudan, on December 8, 2020.
Yasuyoshi CHIBA / AFP

 

The UN rights chief voiced deep concern Wednesday over the situation in Ethiopia’s northern region of Tigray and beyond, warning it was “spiralling out of control”.

“The situation in Ethiopia is, I think, really worrying and volatile,” Michelle Bachelet told journalists in Geneva, adding that the conflict was having an “appalling impact on civilians.”

Thousands have been killed in fighting that began November 4 between government forces and those loyal to the leadership of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).

The fighting was declared over on November 28, but Bachelet voiced alarm that “in the Tigray region itself, fighting is reportedly continuing, in spite of government claims to the contrary.”

Bachelet said her office had corroborated information about a range of “gross human rights violations and abuses,” including attacks on civilians, looting, abductions and sexual violence.

“There are reports of forced recruitment of Tigrayan youth to fight against their own communities,” she said.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said blocked communication in the region was making it particularly difficult to verify all of the allegations her office was receiving.

 

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“There is an urgent need for independent monitoring of the human rights situation in the Tigray region, for all necessary measures to protect civilians, and for accountability for violations,” she said.

Bachelet also decried the “deeply distressing” obstacles to humanitarian relief efforts in Tigray.

“In spite of an agreement between the government and the UN, unfettered humanitarian access has not been possible,” she said, appealing to the government to “ensure humanitarian access, and to ensure access to water, electricity and other basic needs is restored.”

Bachelet also voiced concern about the situation beyond Tigray, pointing to intercommunal violence in recent weeks in other parts of Ethiopia, with reported fatalities.

And she warned that Tigrayans in other parts of the country appeared to be facing “ethnic profiling”, including in the capital Addis Ababa.

“We have reports of dismissals from jobs, including in the civil service, harassment of Tigrayan journalists and hate speech against Tigrayans,” she said.

“Such discriminatory actions are deeply unjust but are also fostering divisiveness and sowing the seeds for further instability and conflict,” she warned, calling on the government to take “immediate measures to halt such discrimination

-AFP

‘We have Completed Military Operations In Tigray’, Says Ethiopian PM Abiy Ahmed

In this file photo taken on March 28, 2018 Abiy Ahmed, Chairman of Oromo Peoples' Democratic Organization (OPDO) looks on in Addis Ababa. Samuel Gebru / AFP
In this file photo taken on March 28, 2018 Abiy Ahmed, Chairman of Oromo Peoples’ Democratic Organization (OPDO) looks on in Addis Ababa. Samuel Gebru / AFP

 

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said Saturday that military operations in the country’s northern Tigray region were “completed” after the army claimed control of the regional capital, declaring victory in a three-week-old conflict that has left thousands dead. 

“I am pleased to share that we have completed and ceased the military operations in the #Tigray region,” Abiy said in a Twitter post Saturday night.

Abiy, last year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, announced on November 4 he had ordered military operations against leaders of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the regional ruling party that dominated Ethiopian politics for nearly three decades before he came to power in 2018.

Tigray has been under a communications blackout ever since, making it impossible to know the full toll of fierce fighting that has included multiple rounds of air strikes and at least one massacre that killed hundreds of civilians.

After securing control of western Tigray and giving TPLF leaders a 72-hour ultimatum to surrender, Abiy announced on Thursday he had ordered a “final offensive” against pro-TPLF forces in the regional capital, Mekele, a city of half a million.

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Global concern mounted over a possible bloodbath, and heavy shelling was reported in Mekele earlier Saturday.

But on Saturday night Gen Berhanu Jula, the army chief, said in a statement that his forces “completely controlled” Mekele.

A government statement specified that federal forces had been able to “take control of the airport, public institutions, the regional administration office and other critical facilities”.

Berhanu said his troops were now “hunting for members of the TPLF junta that are in hiding”.

There was no immediate response from the TPLF.

A long-running feud

Ever since Abiy took office, TPLF leaders have complained of being sidelined from top positions, targeted in corruption prosecutions and broadly scapegoated for the country’s woes.

Tensions rose dramatically after Abiy’s government postponed national elections scheduled for August, citing the coronavirus pandemic.

Tigray held its own elections the following month and branded Abiy an illegitimate ruler.

The military operations that began on  November 4 were, in Abiy’s telling, triggered by attacks by pro-TPLF forces on two federal army camps in Tigray — one in Mekele and another in the town of Dansha.

On Saturday the government said it controlled the camp in Mekele and had secured the release of thousands of federal army officers held hostage there.

Despite Abiy’s triumphant statement, it was not immediately clear fighting in Tigray would end right away.

Tigray has considerable military assets, and at the outset of the conflict analysts estimated the TPLF could mobilise some 200,000 troops.

“The key next issues are what intent and capabilities do the Tigrayan forces have to continue armed resistance as an insurgency, and how will people react to the provisional government that will be established,” said William Davison, analyst for the International Crisis Group.

‘Rebuilding’ efforts

Abiy said Saturday night his government’s “focus now will be on rebuilding the region and providing humanitarian assistance” while police work to apprehend TPLF leaders.

Tens of thousands of refugees have streamed across the border into Sudan during the conflict.

Displacement is also believed to be widespread within Tigray.

The United Nations has spent weeks lobbying — so far unsuccessfully — for full access to the region.

Abiy’s office said earlier this week it would open a “humanitarian access route”.

Hundreds of UN and international NGO workers are currently in Mekele, but they are grappling with shortages of food, cash and other essentials.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said Friday it had received “1,300 requests from people in Ethiopia and abroad frantically looking to contact their relatives,” adding, “We know this is just the tip of the iceberg.”

Regional worries

From the moment fighting broke out, there were widespread fears the conflict would draw in the wider Horn of Africa region.

Rockets from Tigray targeted the capital of neighbouring Eritrea two times — once two weeks ago and again on Friday night.

The TPLF claimed responsibility for the first attack, though there has been no claim for the second.

The TPLF has accused Ethiopia of enlisting Eritrean military support in the conflict, something Abiy’s government has denied.

In a statement Saturday condemning air strikes in and around Mekele, the Tigray government accused Abiy of teaming up with Isaias Afwerki, Eritrea’s president, for the final assault.

“The Tigray regional state would like it to be known to friends and enemies alike that it will give proportional response to the massacres and property damages being done by those fascists,” it said.

Addis Ababa Saturday said the “aerial engagement has been precise and targets only TPLF’s military depot, weaponry and arsenals”, avoiding “civilian facilities”.

 

AFP