Thousands of Ethiopians fleeing conflict in the northern Tigray region have crossed west into neighbouring Sudan, a Sudanese government official said.
Among those streaming across the border were several Ethiopian soldiers, Alsir Khaled, head of Sudan’s refugee agency in the eastern border town of Kassala, said on Tuesday.
“Refugees are pouring in, and the situation is changing by the hour,” said Khaled.
At least 2,500 refugees were counted in the past two days, but hundreds more civilians arriving were yet to be processed by authorities, he added.
Around 30 Ethiopian soldiers who also fled “handed themselves over at a Sudanese military checkpoint,” Khaled added.
Local authorities said they have started to prepare a refugee camp for the fleeing Ethiopians, while aid groups warned of a brewing humanitarian crisis in the heart of the Horn of Africa.
Sudan has sent more than 6,000 troops to the border.
Ethiopia’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed on Tuesday again vowed that his military will bring a speedy end to the week-long fighting in Tigray and remove its Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) leadership, which his government regards as illegal.
Abiy described his government’s military campaign in the Tigray region as “law enforcement operations” that he said will end as soon “as the criminal junta is disarmed, legitimate administration in the region restored, and fugitives apprehended and brought to justice – all of them rapidly coming within reach”.
Abiy has shown no sign of initiating talks with the TPLF, which once dominated Ethiopia’s ruling coalition.
Feeling marginalised by Abiy’s political reforms, the party broke away from the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) – which ruled the country for decades – last year as the prime minister transformed the coalition into a single Prosperity Party.
The TPLF then defied the federal government by holding a local election in September, after Addis Ababa postponed all elections due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Diplomats and other observers assert that the conflict in Tigray could destabilise the region and other parts of Ethiopia, Africa’s second-most populous country of 110 million people.
Ethiopia has many ethnic groups and regions that have sought more autonomy even as Abiy, who won the Nobel prize just last year, tries to hold the country together with exhortations of national unity.
Several hundred people have been reportedly killed on both the sides in the Tigray conflict, a diplomat in the capital, Addis Ababa, told The Associated Press.
More than 150 citizens of European Union countries alone are thought to be in the region, which is increasingly cut off with airports and roads closed and communications largely severed.
Those governments are trying to ensure their consular protection, the diplomat added, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“There are so many uncertainties,” the diplomat said. “How far can Abiy go with this operation while keeping the possibility of, in the end, having a more or less peaceful solution? You need the support of the people.”
Experts worry that the longer the conflict lasts, the more difficult it will be for the federal government to bring the Tigray region back to Ethiopia’s federation of states.