The conflict in northern Ethiopia has already lasted two weeks, and it threatens to destabilise the Horn of Africa.
Ethiopia’s army chief has accused the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus of supporting and trying to procure arms and diplomatic support for Tigray state’s dominant political party, which is fighting the federal troops. He did not cite any evidence.
“This man is a member of that group and he has been doing everything to support them,” the army chief of staff, General Berhanu Jula, said in a televised statement on Thursday.
“He has worked in neighbouring countries to condemn the war. He has worked for them to get weapons,” Berhanu said.
Berhanu said Tedros had “left no stone unturned” to help the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF), the party Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said it is targeting in a military offensive in the region.
“What do you expect from him [Tedros]? We don’t expect he will side with the Ethiopian people and condemn them,” Berhanu said.
Tedros rejected the allegations by Ethiopia.
“There have been reports suggesting I am taking sides in this situation. This is not true,” Tedros wrote on Twitter on Thursday.
“I want to say that I am on only one side and that is the side of peace.”
Tedros is an Ethiopian of Tigrayan descent who served as health minister in a former government coalition led by the TPLF.
The 55-year-old was appointed as the first African head of the WHO in 2017 and has become a household name as he grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic. He has been ranked as one of Time magazine’s most influential people.
Abiy, last year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, accuses the TPLF, which dominated power for 30 years before his appointment in 2018, of seeking to destabilise his government.
In a statement on Thursday, the government accused Tigrayan forces of committing “serious crimes” after conflict broke out this month in the northern region, killing hundreds and sending 30,000 refugees into neighbouring Sudan.
The government statement referenced reports of ethnic killings in the town of Mai Kadra, documented by human rights group Amnesty International this week.
Survivors of the reported attack told Amnesty researchers militias affiliated with the local Tigray regional government killed many – even hundreds – of civilians, some of whom were ethnic Amharas.
Information from all sides has been impossible to verify because internet and phone connections to Tigray have been suspended and the government has restricted access to the area.
“As we enter the final phase of law enforcement operations against this group, we would like to remind the leaders of this group that the atrocities that have been committed by their forces and loyalists in places like Maykadra constitute serious crimes both under Ethiopian and international law,” the statement said, using an alternative spelling.
There was no immediate response from the TPLF leadership.
Also on Thursday, the leader of the Tigray region said the town of Axum remained in their hands though another locality, Shire, had fallen to federal troops seeking to close in on the state capital, Mekelle.
“Shire has fallen three days back but Axum is with us, but there is an army sent to control Axum, but there is a fight,” Debretsion Gebremichael told the Reuters news agency.
The head of the government task force for Tigray did not immediately return calls seeking comment.
Ethiopian federal forces are trying to advance along main roads from the south and the northwest of Mekelle and had got to within approximately 200km (124 miles) of the Tigrayan capital, a diplomat monitoring the conflict said.
Meanwhile, Antony Blinken, the foreign policy adviser to US President-elect Joe Biden, called for more protection for civilians.
“Deeply concerned about the humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia, reports of targeted ethnic violence, and the risk to regional peace and security. The TPLF and Ethiopian authorities should take urgent steps to end the conflict, enable humanitarian access, and protect civilians,” he tweeted.