The war in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region risks dragging on for months and even years, with both sides eyeing a military “knockout blow” that appears unrealistic, the International Crisis Group (ICG) has said.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent troops into Tigray in November to detain and disarm leaders of the once-dominant regional governing party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). He said the move came in response to the TPLF-orchestrated attacks on federal army camps.
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Abiy declared victory within weeks, but combat has continued recently in central and southern Tigray, conflict-prevention group ICG, a Brussels-based think-tank, said in a briefing, published on Friday, nearly five months after the first shots were fired.
The number of fighters loyal to the TPLF is likely swelling because of rising fury over atrocities, it said.
Even though Ethiopia’s military has backing from Eritrea and Ethiopia’s Amhara region, which borders Tigray to the south, most TPLF leaders remain on the run and the ICG noted that none was reported captured or killed in February or March.
Pro-TPLF fighters have regrouped under the Tigray Defence Forces, an armed movement “led by the removed Tigrayan leaders and commanded by former high-ranking” military officers, the ICG said.
The resistance is “entrenched” and enjoys popular support from Tigrayans angry over mass killings and rapes, including those committed by soldiers from Eritrea, the TPLF’s bitter enemy, the group said.
Amid mounting international pressure, Abiy said a week ago that Eritrean troops would pull out of Tigray.
But the region’s interim leader Mulu Nega told the AFP this week that withdrawal was “a process” and would not happen immediately.
Mulu, who was appointed by Abiy, has previously acknowledged that the Tigrayan population has “mixed feelings” about his administration’s presence in the region.
He and other officials, though, have said assumptions that the TPLF enjoys widespread popular support are misguided and have downplayed its potential to mount an effective armed uprising.
ICG said in its briefing that peace talks seem unlikely in the immediate term, but called on the United States, European Union and the African Union to push for a cessation of hostilities and expanded humanitarian access.
Abiy shocked the region in 2018 by making peace with Eritrea after a long border war in the Tigray region, an achievement for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
But since the current Tigray conflict began in November, Abiy has been accused of teaming up with Eritrea to pursue the now-fugitive Tigray leaders.