An escalating conflict in Ethiopia’s restive Tigray region has killed hundreds of people, a report citing sources on the government side has said, even as the prime minister sought to reassure the world his nation was not sliding into civil war.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, insisted on Monday Ethiopa was not descending into “chaos” despite an ongoing military operation in Tigray.
The flare-up in the northern region bordering Eritrea and Sudan has raised fears of civil war in Africa’s second-most populous nation where ethnic conflict has killed hundreds since Abiy took office in 2018..
“Ethiopia is grateful for friends expressing their concern. Our rule of law operation is aimed at guaranteeing peace and stability once and for all by bringing perpetrators of instability to justice,” he tweeted on Monday. “Concerns that Ethiopia will descend into chaos are unfounded and a result of not understanding our context deeply.”
But a military official in the neighbouring Amhara region, on the side of the federal troops, told Reuters news agency that clashes with Tigrayan forces in Kirakir had killed nearly 500 on the Tigrayan side.
Three security sources in Amhara working with federal troops said the Ethiopian army had also lost hundreds in the original battle in Dansha.
Reuters said it had been unable to verify numbers, though a diplomat also said hundreds were believed to have died.
A telephone and internet communications blackout in Tigray has made it difficult to verify the situation on the ground.
Leaders of Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region said on Monday the federal government led by Abiy had launched more than 10 air raids against them in recent days.
“These fascists have demonstrated they will show no mercy in destroying Tigrayans by launching more than 10 air strike attempts in Tigrayan cities,” the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which governs the northern region, said on Facebook without mentioning any casualties.
“The people and government of Tigray are standing together,” it added.
Newly appointed Ethiopian army chief Berhanu Jula said federal forces had captured four towns in western Tigray where much of the fighting has reportedly been concentrated. Reports of dead and wounded soldiers have mounted in the neighbouring Amhara region.
Abiy, who comes from the Oromo, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, launched the military campaign last week saying forces loyal to Tigrayan leaders had attacked a military base and attempted to steal equipment.
The Tigrayans account for just six percent of Ethiopians but had, before Abiy’s rule, dominated politics for nearly 30 years.
The TPLF are battle-hardened from the 1999-2000 war with neighbouring Eritrea and from the struggle to topple Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991. They and militia allies number up to 250,000 fighters and possess significant stocks of military hardware, according to the International Crisis Group think-tank.
Tigrayans say Abiy’s government has unfairly targeted them as part of a crackdown on past rights abuses and corruption.
Federal government fighter jets have in recent days been bombing targets including arms depots in Tigray. Aid workers on Sunday reported heavy fighting between troops loyal to each side, with at least six dead and dozens wounded.
Abiy, a former soldier who fought alongside Tigrayans against Eritrea, has so far defied calls from the United Nations and others to negotiate.
One risk is that Ethiopia’s army could split along ethnic lines, with Tigrayans defecting to the regional force.
There are also fears of reprisals against Tigrayans elsewhere. Addis Ababa police said on Sunday the government had arrested 162 people in possession of firearms and ammunition on suspicion of supporting the Tigrayan forces.
Furthermore, as Abiy’s government mobilises troops to Tigray, other areas already roiled by ethnic violence could face a security vacuum, analysts say.
Thousands have had to flee their homes in the last two years in the nation of 110 million people.
Analysts do not believe the clashes will reawaken the Eritrea conflict, given that President Isaias Afwerki and Abiy both see the Tigrayan leadership as enemies.
All-out war would damage Ethiopia’s economy after years of steady growth. Abiy has pledged sweeping reforms to open lucrative sectors such as telecoms to foreign investment.
Abiy, 44, who is the continent’s youngest leader, won the Nobel Peace Prize last year for democratic reforms following years of repressive government and for making peace with Eritrea after a border war that had killed tens of thousands.
But the conflict in Tigray threatens national stability.