Move follows PM Abiy Ahmed ordering military response to deadly attack by Tigray’s ruling party on federal army camp.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said the army has succeeded in containing a rebel attack in the northern Tigray region after it was deployed to quell an uprising by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) that sparked fears of a civil war.
The government also placed the Tigray region, which borders Eritrea, under a six-month state of emergency following what it said was an attack by the region’s governing party, the TPLF, on an army base.
“The army not only repulsed the attacks but has managed to control important and key locations,” the Nobel-laureate leader said in an address to the nation broadcast by state media on Wednesday evening.
He did not mention any casualties or whether fighting was continuing but added that the government would “conduct more operations in the coming days”.
The army released a statement saying it had inflicted “massive” damage on TPLF forces.
The TPLF attack poses the latest challenge to Abiy from the party which held local elections in defiance of the federal government in September.
“TPLF has chosen to wage war,” he said. “The last red line has been crossed with this morning’s attacks and the federal government is, therefore, forced into a military confrontation.”
Regional broadcaster Tigray TV reported that the Ethiopian army’s northern command, which had a headquarters in the attacked base, had defected to the Tigray rebels, a claim the prime minister’s office denied.
The TPLF had long dominated Ethiopian politics. But since taking office in 2018, Abiy has been at odds with the elites in the region, many of whom he has purged from government and state institutions.
The federal government postponed a general election planned for August because of the COVID-19 pandemic but officials in Tigray defied the move and organised one anyway.
The UN issued a statement underlining the importance of Ethiopia’s stability for the whole Horn of Africa region, which includes Somalia and Sudan.
A UN statement said the body’s Secretary-General Antonio Guterres expressed “alarm over the reported armed clashes in the Tigray region of Ethiopia and calls for immediate measures to de-escalate tensions and ensure a peaceful resolution to the dispute”.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the US was “deeply concerned” about the attacks.
“We are saddened by the tragic loss of life and urge immediate action to restore the peace and de-escalate tensions,” Pompeo said in a statement. “The protection of civilian safety and security is essential.”
The International Crisis Group, meanwhile, said Ethiopia was facing “grave political challenges”.
“This war is the worst possible outcome of the tensions that have been brewing,” it said in a statement.
The US and British embassies in Addis Ababa urged a “de-escalation”, while the German embassy warned its citizens in the country to expect “unrest”.
“There is also a possibility of an internet block across the country. Telephone connections in the Region of Tigray have been interrupted,” it said, adding there was a heavy military presence in the capital.
Internet observer Netblocks confirmed on its Twitter page that there was a web blackout. Tigray’s airspace has also reportedly been closed.
Abiy was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for resolving a border conflict with neighbouring Eritrea.
In his statement, Abiy alleged that the TPLF was threatening that truce.
The rebels have been “manufacturing military outfits resembling that of the Eritrean National Defence Forces, to implicate the Eritrean government in false claims of aggression against the people of Tigray”, he said.