Four weeks of hostilities in Ethiopia’s Tigray region came to an end this week, according to the nation’s head of state.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed declared victory last weekend, saying his army had regained “full control” of the region’s capital city Mekelle, according to The Associated Press.
But Debretsion Gebremichael, the fugitive leader of the Tigray uprising, told AP his militia remains entrenched against federal troops and had yet to lay down their arms. Calling Ethiopia’s offensive a “genocidal campaign” against Tigrayans, Gebremichael called for the federal troops to withdraw, and he maintained his resolve, saying, “We are sure we’ll win.”
That was at odds with news from the United Nations, which announced an agreement with Ethiopian government officials on Friday, Nov. 27. The accord cleared the path for aid workers to deliver humanitarian relief to people in the Tigray region, a key step toward restoring stability to the region as concerns of food insecurity continued to grow.
U.N. spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric on Dec. 2 announced that the safe passage for supplies was extended to Tigray’s bordering regions of Amhara and Afar.
Tigray has been a battleground drawing international concern since Nov. 4, when rebel forces from the region’s ruling political party, Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), stormed a federal military base in the capital city Mekelle. Abiy responded by ordering a military offensive against the “junta” faction.
Since then, about 1 million people have been displaced in Tigray, a region with a population of 6 million, according to U.N. estimates. And more than 45,000 Ethiopians have fled the violence, seeking refuge across the border in Sudan.
Meanwhile, aid trucks were blockaded at the Tigray borders, cutting off much-needed humanitarian relief for a colony of Eritrean refugees, who’ve sought refuge in Ethiopia for decades. Nearly 100,000 Eritreans were living in asylum on four refugee camps in Mekelle when the war broke out. Worried that food had run out at those camps, the U.N. Refugee Agency pleaded to Ethiopian authorities Monday, asking for access. The agency also cited unconfirmed reports of attacks, abductions and forced recruitment at the refugee camps, and asked the federal government to protect anyone seeking to flee the territory.
Abiy became Ethiopia’s most powerful man in 2018, riding a wave of anti-government protests that toppled a regime under which Tigray held sway for nearly 30 years. Abiy’s central government clashed with the TPLF almost from the start of his administration. Tigray officials staged regional elections in September, defying the prime minister’s federal order to postpone the races due to COVID-19.
The tensions reached a boiling point when TPLF troops stormed the Northern Command, seizing control of the federal army base in Mekelle. Abiy responded by sending in the federal army to quell the TPLF rebellion.
The fighting has been tempered by reports of kidnappings, thousands of soldiers held captive, roving attacks on civilians, ethnic cleansing and communication blackouts that essentially severed the region from the world. Both sides claimed the other was committing atrocities, and the international community weighed in, pressuring Abiy to find peace.
There is not yet an official account of the casualties, but thousands are believed to have died from the fighting. The prime minister seemed intent on handling the insurgency on his own terms, at one point refusing any outside intervention.
Abiy gave TPLF a 72-hour ultimatum to surrender, which expired Nov. 25. When the Tigrayan militia refused to concede, Abiy ordered what he called the “final phase” of his offensive on Nov. 26. Debretsion, the TPLF leader, reported that Mekelle was under “heavy bombardment” on Nov. 28 and a diplomat with direct contact with residents said the Ethiopian National Defense Force had moved in to capture the city, AlJazeera reported.
Goverment officials claim there were no civilian casualties in their offensive. But reports emerged online that dozens of civilians were killed in bombings, although those accounts remained in dispute.
Ethiopian officials on Dec. 1 announced that Keria Ibrahim, one of TPLF’s nine executive committee leaders, had surrendered to federal forces.
Now attention turns to restoring stability to the Tigray region. Fesseha Tessema, a top TPLF official, told AlJazeera last week that they would continue fighting even if they lost the war.
“Our forces still control much of rural Tigray, and our governing structure remains intact in these areas,” she said. “There’s no military solution, only a negotiated political one.”
But Billene Seyoum Woldeyes, a spokeswoman for Abiy, suggested in an interview Wednesday that the appetite for rebellion in Tigray has dried up because the youth there are no longer interested in insurgency. “The dynamics have changed, the years have changed, the people have changed as well within the region,” she said. “The people of Tigray, majority of who were born after TPLF took power … So there’s a young population that’s really looking forward to their own prosperity and their growth and development. It’s a youth population that is looking for peace as well and doesn’t necessarily align with these dogmatic and propaganda principles of TPLF. There might be a small group in support of them, but it doesn’t paint a picture of the general wants and needs of the Tigray population.”