In escalating conflict, people of Ethiopia's Tigray risk displacement, U.N. says

ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) – Nine million people risk displacement from the escalating conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, the United Nations said, warning that the federal government’s declaration of a state of emergency was blocking food and other aid.

Orthodox faithful attend the Sunday morning prayer session at the St. George church in Bahir Dar, Amhara Region in Ethiopia, November 8, 2020. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

Prime Minster Abiy Ahmed is pressing ahead with a military campaign he announced on Wednesday against the northern region, despite international pleas to pursue dialogue with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The group led the country’s multi-ethnic ruling coalition until Abiy took office in 2018.

On Friday he vowed air strikes in Tigray would continue. Though the initial strikes targeted arms depots and military sites, Abiy cautioned civilians to avoid mass gatherings lest they become “collateral damage”, further raising fears.

About 600,000 people in Tigray depend on food aid to survive, while another 1 million receive other forms of support, all of which are disrupted, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said in a report released Saturday.

Clashes between federal troops and Tigrayan forces had broken out in eight locations in the region, according to the report.

Six combatants were killed and more than 60 wounded in fighting near the border between the Tigray and Amhara regions, a humanitarian source told Reuters on Sunday. Both sides suffered casualties and some of the wounded were brought to hospitals in and near the town of Gondar, the source said.

A desert locust infestation in East Africa has hit Tigray particularly hard and efforts to combat the insect swarms are feared to have stopped because of the conflict, risking further damage to crops, the U.N. report read.

Abiy won last year’s Nobel Peace Prize for making peace with neighbouring Eritrea. Accepting the honour, he called war “the epitome of hell” and referenced his own time on the frontline in the 1998-2000 war that claimed more than 100,000 lives.

He said on Twitter on Saturday that his military campaign “aims to end the impunity that has prevailed for far too long”, he said, a reference to the dominance of Tigrayans in the country’s politics before he took office.

Animosity between Abiy and his former allies then mounted steadily. Tigrayans complain of persecution under Abiy, an ethnic Oromo, who ordered the arrest of dozens of former senior military and political officials from the TPLF in a crackdown on corruption. Last year, Abiy reorganised the ruling coalition into a single party that the TPLF refused to join.

MEDIATION OFFERS

Experts and diplomats are sounding alarms of a potential civil war that could destabilize the country of 110 million people and the strategic Horn of Africa region.

The federal military’s biggest command, and the majority of its heavy weapons, are stationed in Tigray. One of the biggest risks is that the army will split along ethnic lines, with Tigrayans defecting to their region’s own force. There are signs that is already happening, analysts say.

Tigrayan forces number up to 250,000 men and have their own significant stocks of military hardware, experts say.

“The fragmentation of Ethiopia would be the largest state collapse in modern history,” a group of former United States diplomats said in a statement published by the U.S. Institute of Peace on Thursday. The escalation of the conflict would also kill remaining hope for the democratic reforms Abiy has promised, the statement read.

Abiy spoke on Saturday with U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who “offered his good offices”. The U.N. chief also spoke on Saturday to the African Union chief Moussa Faki Mahamat and to Sudanese Primes Minster Abdalla Hamdok in his capacity as chair of the regional Africa group IGAD, according to the spokesman.

But Abiy is not listening to requests for mediation, diplomats and security officials in the region have told Reuters. He did not issue a statement on the call with the U.N. chief.

Ethiopia’s parliament voted on Saturday to replace the Tigray regional government, another step to deny the legitimacy of the administration elected in September in a poll held in defiance of Abiy’s federal government.

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