Nearly eight months ago, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent federal troops into Tigray for a military campaign against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the northern region’s ruling party that had dominated national politics for decades.
Abiy, the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner, promised the air and ground operation would be swift and targeted. In late November, he declared victory after federal troops entered the regional capital, Mekelle. But on Monday, the federal government’s operation suffered a heavy blow when the Tigrayan forces retook the city, prompting celebrations in the streets as federal soldiers and members of an Abiy-appointed interim regional government fled.
The brutal war has been marked by reports of massacres, rape and other abuses. It has killed thousands of people, if not tens of thousands, with nearly two million displaced and hundreds of thousands facing famine conditions.
Here is a timeline of the ongoing crisis.
In the early hours of November 4, 2020, Abiy orders a military response to what he calls a “traitorous” attack on federal army camps in Tigray.
The prime minister blames the attack on the TPLF, which was at the helm of Ethiopia’s governing coalition for nearly 30 years until he took office in 2018. The TPLF denies responsibility and says the reported attack is a pretext for an “invasion”. It will later tell Al Jazeera it was the target of a “coordinated attack” against it by the federal government and its longtime foe, Eritrea.
It is impossible to verify assertions on all sides because telephone lines and internet links to Tigray are severed and journalists are barred from entering the region.
The eruption of fighting came after months of rising tensions, including Tigray’s holding of regional elections in September in defiance of the federal government, which had postponed nationwide polls due in August because of the coronavirus pandemic. Abiy’s government says the vote won by the TPLF in a landslide is illegal and begins to withhold funds meant for social welfare programme in Tigray, a region of some six million.
As fighting intensifies, there are concerns a conflict in Ethiopia could reverberate across the already fragile Horn of Africa, impacting neighbours Somalia, Eritrea, Djibouti and Sudan.
Abiy sacks the head of the military, whose top brass includes many battle-hardened Tigrayans, while on November 9, the federal government carries out more air raids in Tigray, with Abiy saying the operation will be over “soon”.
On November 14, TPLF forces fire rockets at Asmara, the capital of neighbouring Eritrea, which has a long-running enmity with the TPLF leadership. TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael also says his forces have been fighting Eritrean troops “on several fronts” for the past few days.
Tens of thousands of refugees flee into neighbouring Sudan, describing the horror of intense fighting, including horrific killings.
As the refugee flow swells, tensions mount between Ethiopia and Sudan, part of whose frontier is disputed. After 10 days of fighting, the United Nations warns of possible war crimes in Tigray.
Having rejected peace talks and international calls for an end to the fighting, Abiy says government tanks are advancing on Mekelle. The city comes under heavy shelling before Abiy announces on November 28 that military operations in Tigray are “completed”. However, fighting continues in parts of Tigray.
In February 2021, Amnesty International says Eritrean soldiers killed “hundreds of civilians” in November in the holy city of Axum in Tigray. More reports of atrocities emerge, with civilians accusing Eritrean forces of carrying out massacres and systematic rape.
On March 10, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken urges Eritrea to withdraw from the region and describes violence in western Tigray as “ethnic cleansing”. He also calls for special forces from Ethiopia’s Amhara region, which borders Tigray to the south, to be ordered out of disputed areas they have taken.
For months, Ethiopia and Eritrea flatly deny the involvement of Eritrean forces in the conflict.
But on March 23, Abiy finally admits that Eritrean troops had crossed the border into Tigray. He also suggests they may have been involved in atrocities against civilians.
The next day, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission says Eritrean soldiers massacred more than 100 civilians in Axum in November, in what may amount to crimes against humanity. The findings by the government-affiliated but independent body corroborate separate investigations by both Amnesty and Human Rights Watch.
After admitting Eritrea’s role, Abiy flies to its capital, Asmara, to meet Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki. During the visit, Abiy says Eritrea has agreed to pull its forces back over the border.
Just over a week later, Ethiopia says Eritrean troops have “started to evacuate” Tigray but on April 15, the UN’s top humanitarian official says there is no evidence of withdrawal and warns the crisis in the embattled region has deteriorated.
“The conflict is not over and things are not improving,” Mark Lowcock says as he gives a sobering assessment of the events on the ground, calling the “reports of systematic rape, gang rape and sexual violence … especially disturbing and alarmingly widespread”.
Furthermore, Lowcock says he received a report of 150 people dying of hunger in one area of southern Tigray, calling it “a sign of what lies ahead if more action is not taken”.
A day later, Eritrea, which has denied the allegations of rape and other crimes levelled against its soldiers as “outrageous” and “a vicious attack on the culture and history of our people”, also acknowledges for the first time that its forces are taking part in the conflict and promises to pull them out of Tigray.
On April 22, after multiple meetings that had failed to produce any kind of concrete outcome, the UN’s Security Council finally issues its first joint statement on the continuing crisis, expressing “deep concern” about allegations of human rights violations, including reports of sexual violence against women and girls.
The 15-member body also calls for “a scaled-up humanitarian response and unfettered humanitarian access” to address humanitarian needs, including for people in the embattled region who are in need of food assistance.
Ethiopia’s mission to the UN calls the situation in Tigray “an internal affair regulated by the laws of the country, including human rights laws”.
It says the Ethiopian government is “providing significant portion of the humanitarian assistance delivered to those in need and will continue to allocate the maximum available resources” and stressed the commitment to “investigate and ensure accountability” for alleged human rights violations “will be upheld”.
On April 27, the UN’s latest humanitarian update for Tigray describes “active hostilities reported in the central, eastern and northwestern parts of the region”.
Amid growing international outrage, AFP news agency obtains government documents showing that Eritrean troops are looting and blocking food aid.
On May 24, the US State Department on Monday announces it is imposing economic and security curbs on Ethiopia, as well as visa restrictions on current or former Ethiopian and Eritrean government officials and members of the countries’ security forces. The visa restrictions also apply to other individuals, including Amhara regional and irregular forces and TPLF members, believed to be “responsible for, or complicit in, undermining resolution of the crisis in Tigray”.
Two days later, on May 26, US President Joe Biden calls for a ceasefire and an end to “large-scale human rights abuses” in Tigray.
On June 10, the UN and international aid groups say more than 350,000 people in Tigray are facing famine conditions, with millions more at risk.
“There is famine now in Tigray,” Lowcock, the UN aid chief, says. “The number of people in famine conditions … is higher than anywhere in the world.”
On June 21, Ethiopia finally holds its twice-delayed elections – but there are no polls in Tigray and other parts of the country due to security and logistical challenges. Abiy’s Prosperity Party is widely expected to be declared the winner.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet says on the same day she is “deeply disturbed” by reports of “serious violations” in Tigray and that she has “credible reports” Eritrean soldiers are still operating in the region.
On June 22, an Ethiopian air raid on a market in the Tigrayan town of Togoga kills dozens of people and wounds many more, according to local medical officers. The UN calls for an urgent investigation, but Ethiopia’s military on June 24 rejects that it struck civilians, insisting that it targeted rebel fighters.
On June 25, international medical charity Doctors Without Borders, also known by its French acronym, MSF, says three of its employees – two Ethiopian and one Spanish – were “brutally murdered” in Tigray.
On June 28, the federal government-appointment interim government of Tigray flees as rebels advance on Mekele, signalling a turning point in the conflict. The government in Addis Ababa then announces a “unilateral ceasefire” in Tigray, but there is no acknowledgement of the declaration from the TPLF.
In Mekelle, there are celebrations on the streets as the Tigrayan forces enter the city. On June 29, the TPLF says Mekelle is “100 percent” back under their control, with leaders pledging to drive out “enemies” from the region.
“Our forces are still in hot pursuit to the south, east,” says spokesman Getachew Reda. “Our primary focus is to degrade enemy fighting capabilities … So if going to Amhara is what it takes, we will do it, if going to Eritrea is what it takes, we’ll do it,” he tells Reuters by satellite phone.