Ethiopian refugees were flooding into Sudan on Wednesday as Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s federal troops battled well-armed local forces in Tigray and protests against the northern region’s leaders were planned elsewhere.
With outsiders barred and communications down, it was hard to know how Abiy’s week-long offensive against regional rulers the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) was progressing.
But security sources and state media have spoken of hundreds of deaths in the mountainous state of more than 5 million people, where federal warplanes have been pounding arms and fuel depots as soldiers fight on the ground.
Both sides have claimed successes, including federal troops taking an airport and Tigrayans alleging they downed a jet, but verification has not been possible. The government has confirmed, however, that the TPLF controls a compound of the powerful Northern Command military in Tigray’s capital Mekelle.
Given deep antipathy between the Tigrayans and Abiy, who comes from the Oromo, the largest ethnic group, plus ethnic frictions all around Ethiopia, there are fears of civil war and knock-ons around the Horn of Africa region.
Ethiopia reached a peace agreement with neighbouring Eritrea two years ago, for which Abiy won the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, and the government in Asmara shares his hostility to the TPLF.
Abiy’s government also has troops deployed in Somalia helping to combat an Islamist insurgency.
Sudan said more than 10 000 Ethiopians had already fled across the border.
“We are in a very critical humanitarian situation because these numbers, which we expect to increase, are greater than our capabilities, and there is an acute shortage of food, shelter and treatment,” said Alsir Khaled from the refugees commission in eastern Sudan.
Abiy, who at 44 is Africa’s youngest leader, launched operations in Tigray last week after accusing the local government there of attacking a military base.
The United Nations, African Union and others want a ceasefire, but diplomats believe Abiy is intent on crushing the Tigrayan leaders. “We won’t rest till this junta is brought to justice,” he tweeted late on Tuesday.
The U.S. State Department’s top diplomat for Africa, Tibor Nagy, spoke on the phone with Ethiopian Foreign Minister Demeke Mekonnen, the state-affiliated Fana broadcaster said.
“The conflict must be prevented from spreading to the region,” Germany’s Foreign Ministry said.
Abiy, a former soldier who once fought alongside Tigrayans against Eritrea, took office in 2018 after a Tigrayan-led government had dominated politics since rebels from their region spearheaded the toppling of Marxist military rule in 1991.
But his efforts to ease a repressive political climate also uncorked ethnic clashes, with hundreds killed and hundreds of thousands forced from homes in the last two years.
The leaders of Oromiya, the largest of Ethiopia’s nine ethnic-based regions with around 35 million people, and of Amhara planned anti-TPLF protests for Thursday in what appeared to be a government campaign to whip up support.
The rallies will protest over “atrocities” and “treason” by the TPLF, according to Gizachew Muluneh, spokesman for the Amhara regional government which backs Abiy.
The Addis Ababa mayor’s office also announced demonstrations in coming days and urged residents to donate blood and money to show support for soldiers in Tigray.
There were no public statements on Wednesday from the Tigrayan leadership.
The state-appointed human rights commission said that six Ethiopian journalists had been arrested. The international Committee to Protect Journalists warned of “a dangerous reversal” of Abiy’s past steps to improve press freedom.
Spokesmen for the federal police and attorney general’s office, where the prime minister’s spokeswoman referred Reuters for comments, did not respond to calls and messages.
Quelling Tigray may be tough for Abiy, experts say.
The TPLF is a battle-hardened movement, having been at the forefront of the 1998-2000 war with Eritrea and the defeat of dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991. Their forces and militia are well-equipped and number up to 250 000.
Though there was little detail from the ground this week, the fighting was worsening the humanitarian situation in Tigray, where there were already 100 000 internally displaced people and 600 000 dependent on food aid.
The International Rescue Committee charity said there was only one month’s worth of fuel left for water pumps serving refugees in Tigray.