Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has denied a rebellious northern force his troops have been battling for more than a month would have the capacity to mount an armed offensive from the mountains of Tigray.
Federal troops have captured the regional capital Mekelle from the former local ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), and declared an end to an offensive that began on November 4.
But TPLF leaders say they are fighting back on various fronts around Mekelle. Ethiopian experts fear a drawn-out armed campaign with a destabilising effect across the wider Horn of Africa region.
“The criminal clique pushed a patently false narrative that its fighters and supporters are battle-hardened and well-armed, posing the risk of protracted insurgency in the rugged mountains of Tigray,” Abiy said in a statement.
“It also claimed that it has managed to undertake strategic retreat with all its capability and regional government apparatus intact. The reality is the criminal clique is thoroughly defeated and in disarray, with insignificant capability to mount a protracted insurgency.”
There was no immediate response from the TPLF.
With most internet and telephone communications in Tigray down and access to the region severely restricted, it is difficult to verify the statements by either warring side.
Meanwhile, two diplomatic sources told Reuters news agency on Monday that a United Nations security team seeking to access Shimelba refugee camp, one of four for Eritrean refugees in Tigray, was blocked and fired at on Sunday.
The sources declined to give more details, saying the full circumstances were unclear. There was no immediate comment from the government, TPLF or United Nations.
Aid needed fast
The conflict, which has its roots in Abiy’s pushback against Tigrayans’ past dominance of federal government and military posts, is thought to have killed thousands of people.
It has also sent nearly 50,000 refugees fleeing to Sudan, seen TPLF rockets fired into Eritrea, stirred ethnic divisions, and led to the disarming of Tigrayans in Ethiopia’s peacekeeping contingency combating al-Qaeda-linked fighters in Somalia.
The UN and aid agencies are pressing for safe access to Tigray, which is home to more than five million people and where 600,000 relied on food aid even before the war.
However, two senior aid officials told Reuters over the weekend that looting and lawlessness meant the region was still too dangerous to dispatch convoys.
Shimei Abra Adiko, an Ethiopian refugee in Sudan, said: “The [pro-government] militia said they would kill us because we are from Tigray. They told us, ‘You have 24 hours to leave’, and they began to loot our animals and property.”
The TPLF has also accused Abiy’s forces of looting in Mekelle.
“[They are] looting civilian properties, hotels and damaging factories after looting,” TPLF spokesman Getachew Reda told a TPLF-owned TV station.
The Ethiopian government says that, with peace restored, its priorities are the welfare of Tigrayans and return of refugees. However, some residents, diplomats and the TPLF say clashes persist, with protests and looting also reported in Mekelle on Friday.
The TPLF dominated Ethiopia’s government for nearly three decades until Abiy took power in 2018.
The party accuses him of seeking to centralise power at the expense of Ethiopia’s 10 regions and says Tigrayan officials were unfairly targeted in a crackdown on corruption and rights abuses.
The government denies that and accuses TPLF leaders of treason for attacking federal forces in early November.