Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has sacked his army chief, head of intelligence and foreign minister, as the military continues a five-day operation in the northern Tigray region with a new round of air raids.
Abiy’s office made the announcement on its Twitter feed on Sunday, giving no reasons for the changes, as the reported number of soldiers wounded in the conflict continued to rise.
It said Deputy Prime Minister Demeke Mekonnen had been appointed foreign minister and Birhanu Jula was promoted to army chief of staff, from deputy army chief.
Abiy also named Temesgen Tiruneh, who was president of the Amhara region, as the new intelligence chief.
The prime minister is pursuing a military campaign he announced in the early hours of Wednesday, despite international pleas for dialogue with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in order to avoid civil war.
In a report on Saturday, the United Nations said nine million people were at risk of displacement from the escalating conflict, warning that the government’s declaration on Wednesday of a state of emergency in Tigray was blocking food and other aid.
Tigrayans dominated Ethiopian politics for decades until Abiy took office in 2018. They are fighting his efforts to reduce their influence.
Meanwhile, a medical official told the AFP news agency that 98 government soldiers had been treated for gunshot wounds at a hospital in the neighbouring Amhara region, the latest indication that fighting has been intense.
Abiy and military leaders have touted Ethiopian soldiers’ successes against forces loyal to the TPLF, but a communications blackout in the region has made their accounts difficult to verify.
An Ethiopian military plane bombed a missile and artillery site next to the airport in the Tigray region’s capital Mekelle on Sunday, one military and two diplomatic sources told the Reuters news agency, which noted that it was not immediately clear what was destroyed in the bombing.
The sources said the plane left a military base in the city of Bahir Dar in Amhara.
New army chief Birhanu told a state-run newspaper on Sunday that the army was in control of several towns near the border with Eritrea, including Dansha and Shire, but he did not say when the army had seized those areas.
It was impossible to verify the report because of the communications blackout in the region.
Reports of dead and wounded soldiers have mounted in recent days in Amhara, where a humanitarian aid worker said three died and 35 were treated on Saturday, according to AFP. On Friday, 105 were reported injured and five killed in the region.
Abiy spoke on Saturday with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who “offered his good offices”.
According to the UN spokesman, Guterres also spoke with African Union chief Moussa Faki Mahamat and Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok in his capacity as chair of the regional Africa group IGAD.
Experts have voiced concerns the conflict could not only break Ethiopia apart but also reverberate across the region and draw in outside forces.
“This could be the start of a civil war, but that is not certain,” said Martin Plaut, a longtime observer of politics in the Horn of Africa. “The situation in Tigray is one of many crises in the country, but could intensify, drawing in other Ethiopian regions, while also threatening neighbouring Sudan and Eritrea.”