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A “Full-Scale Humanitarian Crisis” is Unfolding in Ethiopia Over Conflict in Tigray, UN Warns

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AFP - Ebrahim Hamid
  • Ethiopia is engaged in a conflict with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, a former ruling party that controls the Tigray region.
  • The fighting stemmed from rising ethnic tensions and the TPLF holding an election despite a central government ban because of COVID-19.
  • TPLF then attacked a military base, and the central government has responded with attacks of their own. The conflict could soon escalate as Ethiopian forces head towards the Tigray capital of Mekelle.
  • The fighting has already created tens of thousands of refugees, with that number expected to rise.
  • The TPLF has considerable military strength of its own, so it’s likely there will be many military casualties in the coming days.

Growing Humanitarian Crisis

The U.N. Commissioner on Human Rights warned Tuesday morning that fighting in the Tigray region of Ethiopia could be a “full-scale humanitarian crisis.”

Fighting began on November 4 after the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) attacked an Ethiopian military base near the local capital of Mekelle. Tensions between the TPLF and the central government have been strained as of late. The TPLF, which has widespread support in Tigray, held elections in September in defiance of a central government order against doing so because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The conflict has created tens of thousands of refugees to date, with the U.N. saying at least 27,000 Tigrayans have arrived in neighboring Sudan as a result of fighting in western Tigray. Additionally, both sides accuse the other of human rights violations. Amnesty International has released details of some atrocities; such as the stabbing and hacking to death of 500 civilians.

Local witnesses told Amnesty International that the atrocities were conducted by TPLF forces, while they accuse the Ethiopian army of conducting the attack and welcome an independent investigation. Amnesty International couldn’t verify the claims as telecommunications and internet are currently cut off in Tigray, according to NetBlocks, which monitors internet-access around the world.

One refugee described a similar attack to Al Jazeera, saying, “These people are coming with knives and sticks, wanting to attack citizens. And behind them is the Ethiopian army with tanks. The knives and the sticks aren’t the problem, it’s the tanks.”

“They struck and burned the entire place.”

Civil War on the Horizon

The conflict threatens to grow to a possible civil war in Ethiopia, as a temporary halt to hostilities was ended Tuesday. That move came after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced on Facebook that the TLPF leadership failed to meet a three-day deadline to surrender.

“The final critical act of law enforcement will be done in the coming days,” he added.

That “final critical act of law enforcement” includes airstrikes on alleged military targets near Mekelle, although there are widespread reports of civilian casualties. The casualties will likely escalate as fighting increases. Until this point, fighting has been relatively light as TPLF forces pull back to more defensible positions and more favorable mountainous terrain.

Unlike many militias around the world, the TPLF is heavily armed and experienced. For decades it was the dominant party in Ethiopian politics before the rise of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. When Abiy formed a new coalition government, the TPLF declined to join, preferring regional power structures over Abiy’s push for a centralized government.

Tigrayan and TPLF members made up the majority of Ethiopia’s army, and their forces gained valuable combat experience against Eritrea in a decades-long conflict. Additionally, Tigray was the region where much of the fighting took place, meaning many important military installations and materiel are located there.

Ethiopia, for its part, does have a major advantage in man power and access to more advanced weaponry, such as the Ethiopian Air Force.

Many leaders fear that the conflict could destabilize the region, especially as the TPLF has openly admitted to bombing an Eritrean airport. Ethopia and Eritrea just ended their long time conflict in 2019, something Abiy won a Nobel Peace Prize for.

Leaders from nearby Uganda and Kenya are both calling for peace and negotiations, but that seems unlikely. Ethiopian war goals include the TPLF handing over its top leadership. Minister of Democratization Zadig Abraha told Al Jazeera, “The TPLF raided our Northern Command, it looted our artillery, and it also surrounded our soldiers and taken hostage of them. What government would possibly negotiate [after all that]?”

While TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael said on Tuesday, “This campaign cannot be finished. As long as the army of the invaders is in our land, the fight will continue. They cannot keep us silent by military force.”

See What Others Are saying: (BBC News) (Wall Street Journal) (Reuters)

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