Tens of thousands of Ethiopians have pledged to defend the capital from advancing rebels during a pro-military rally where attendees dismissed diplomatic efforts to end the year-long war.
The rally in central Addis Ababa on Sunday was the government’s latest attempt to shore up public support for the conflict against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and allied groups.
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It came five days after the government declared a nationwide state of emergency ostensibly to protect civilians from the TPLF, which has claimed key gains in recent days while floating a possible march on the capital.
United States official Jeffrey Feltman arrived in Ethiopia on Thursday to try to broker an end to the hostilities.
The US embassy announced on Saturday it was ordering the departure of non-emergency staff, days after countries including Saudi Arabia, Norway, Sweden and Denmark urged their citizens to leave Ethiopia.
‘Sucking our blood’
The protests on Sunday, organised by the government, were also directed against countries who have called for an end to the violence.
“We don’t need interference from abroad,” read some of the placards.
Rally-goers also held signs blasting Western media for broadcasting “fake news” overstating rebel gains.
Other signs urged the US, one of the harshest international critics of the war, to “stop sucking our blood”.
Addis Ababa mayor Adanech Abebe said in a speech that Ethiopia’s foes were trying to “terrorise our population”.
“They say Addis Ababa is surrounded, but Addis Ababa is only surrounded by its incredible people, by its vigilant, heroic children,” she said.
She was particularly critical of the US government, which last week announced plans to boot Ethiopia out of a vital trade pact because of rights abuses related to the war.
“If aid and loans will strip us of our freedom, if they will lead us to sacrifice our freedom, we won’t sacrifice our freedom,” Adanech said, adding that the TPLF’s rightful place “is in hell”.
Ethiopian journalist Samuel Getachew, speaking from Addis Ababa, told Al Jazeera the rally was designed to show that a large number of people still support the government’s military operations against the rebels.
“This is [also] to show to the world, that Ethiopians want a local solution to the problem,” he said, referring to the anti-Western rhetoric among the crowd.
Al Jazeera’s Mohammed Adow, reporting from Addis Ababa, said the rally was representative of popular sentiment on the streets of the capital.
“Most people here support the Ethiopian Defense Forces and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed,” Adow said.
The Ugandan president is set to host a summit of the East African bloc the Intergovernmental Authority on Development on November 16 to discuss the conflict.
Guns ‘not the solution’
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent troops into Tigray last November to topple the TPLF, then the regional ruling party, a move he said came in response to TPLF attacks on federal army camps.
He promised a swift victory but in June the TPLF retook most of Tigray, including the capital Mekelle, and it has since moved into neighbouring Afar and Amhara regions.
Pressure is mounting on the central government after the TPLF said its forces were less than 350km (217 miles) from Addis Ababa. Hundreds of refugees from the northern conflict regions of Tigray, Amhara and Afar arrived in the capital on Saturday, a witness told dpa news agency.
On Sunday, Abiy said in a Twitter post: “When we stand together, we can overcome anything.
“We stand on the shoulders of our ancestors that paid great sacrifices for us and today we stand committed to laying a solid foundation for generations to come.”
#Ethiopia our beauty is in our unity. When we stand together, we can overcome anything. We stand on the shoulders of our ancestors that paid great sacrifices for us and today we stand committed to laying a solid foundation for generations to come. May God Bless #Ethiopia! pic.twitter.com/WPwrRUtfzb
— Abiy Ahmed Ali 🇪🇹 (@AbiyAhmedAli) November 7, 2021
Many people from Tigray have been arrested in the capital and driven out of the city in military vehicles. Police confirmed on Saturday that there had been a “clean-up operation”.
Meanwhile, several Addis Ababa residents said on Sunday they did not fear the TPLF.
“They won’t come to Addis because I believe the military can destroy them,” clothing vendor Kebede Hailu told the AFP news agency.
“There will be no negotiation. They are terrorists and they should be buried and destroyed.”
Yet one performer, singer Tariku Gankisi, appeared to go off message when he took the stage at the rally and called for talks.
“Why are we saying move forward and die? Let the youth stay, let the elderly go [to the front]. It’s better to have negotiations,” he said. “Enough with the gun, it’s not a solution.”
For months the Ethiopian gov & its blood & soil nationalism base used Dishta Gina’s single to rile up the base.
Now, he spoke loud & clear. He said enough to the bloodshed.
The voices in the background? They only knew he was invited to excite them for more of what he rejected. pic.twitter.com/D2tHPH0YGf
— Tsedale Lemma (@TsedaleLemma) November 7, 2021
As he spoke, someone else on stage could be overheard asking: “Who invited him?”