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Ethiopia conflict heats up as Amhara region vows to attack Tigray forces

Members of Amhara Special Forces stand guard along a street in Humera town, Ethiopia, on July 1, 2021.(Photo by Reuters)

The war in Ethiopia’s conflict-ridden region of Tigray looks set to intensify as a unilateral ceasefire declared by the federal government in the face of the rebels’ advances seems to be faltering.

In a statement on Wednesday, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said his government had decided to abandon the ceasefire declared three weeks ago after the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) retook the regional capital, Mekelle, saying that the truce had failed to deliver.

“The ceasefire could not bear the desired fruits,” he said. “The TPLF...poses a great danger to the sovereignty of the country. The federal government, through mobilizing the people of Ethiopia, is determined to curb this threat.”

He fblamed the TPLF for choosing to fight rather than allow in aid or observe the ceasefire, accusing them of recruiting child soldiers.

TPLF spokesman Getachew Reda dismissed the claim, saying, “We don’t have child soldiers because mature soldiers are never in short supply.”

He also said that the TPLF would not observe a ceasefire while parts of Tigray remained under control of the central government.

The TPLF has already dismissed the ceasefire as a “joke,” vowing to keep fighting until “enemies” are driven out.

Meanwhile, the neighboring Amhara region has said it will rally its own forces for a counter-attack against Tigrayan rebels, after they pledged to retake western Tigray, an expanse of fertile territory controlled by Amhara forces.

“The regional government has now transitioned from defensive to offensive,” Amhara spokesperson Gizachew Muluneh was quoted as saying by the region’s state-run Amhara Media Corporation. “Amhara militia and special forces have been systematically trying to defend but now our patience has run out and, as of today, we have opened an offensive attack.”

Western Tigray has long been home to large populations of both Tigrayans and Amhara, and renewed fighting between two of Ethiopia’s biggest ethnic groups over the territory could drive another wave of refugees from a conflict that has already forced two million from their homes.

The TPLF has managed to overtake more territory in the restive region of Tigray in the past three week, after an abrupt reversal in an eight-month brutal conflict with federal army and Eritrean troops.

The group gained control over Korem, a town 170 kilometers south of Mekelle, on Monday. The rebels also allegedly advanced further south, battling to take control of the major town of Alamanta.

Tigrayan forces also pushed across the deep ravine of the Tekeze River to take Mai Tsebri from Amhara control on Tuesday.

The northern region of Tigray has been embroiled in conflict since Abiy declared a war against the forces of the region’s then-ruling party, TPLF, in November.

Thousands of people have so far been killed in Tigray, according to the International Crisis Group think tank, and around 50,000 Ethiopians have fled to refugee camps across the border in Sudan.

Refugees stuck in middle of conflict

Separately on Wednesday, Tigrayan forces searched homes of the refugees in Adi Harush camp and took 19 of them away to an unknown location, according to witnesses.

A refugee told Reuters that a Muslim refugee man was killed after they told him to carry some weapons and he refused.

However, TPLF’s spokesman Getachew said, “Our forces are not after Eritrean refugees. We will make sure refugees are protected and we are more than ready to investigate any claims,” adding that the refugees would be permitted to leave the area if they wished.

Caught in the middle of the fighting are 23,000 Eritrean refugees sheltering in two camps near the town of Mai Tsebri.

Hundreds of Tigrayans detained in Ethiopian capital in recent weeks

Meanwhile, Ethiopian police reportedly detained hundreds of ethnic Tigrayans in the capital Addis Ababa in recent weeks, witnesses said Wednesday.

Dozens of rights groups and lawyers have described the latest wave of detentions as a nationwide crackdown on ethnic Tigrayans.

City authorities in Addis Ababa say they have recently closed a number of Tigrayan-owned businesses over alleged links to the TPLF, which was designated by the government as a terrorist organization in May.  

Addis Ababa Police Commission spokesperson, Commander Fasika Fanta, said, however, that he had no information on the arrests or business closures.

“People might be suspected of a crime and be arrested, but no one was targeted because of ethnicity,” federal police spokesperson Jeylan Abdi said.

Ethiopia’s attorney general had previously said there was no government policy to “purge” Tigrayan officials; however, he didn’t rule out the possibility that some innocent individuals might be swept up in arrests.

Tesfalem Berhe, a Tigrayan lawyer from a Tigrayan opposition party, told Reuters he knew of at least 104 Tigrayans arrested in the past two weeks in Addis Ababa and five in the eastern city of Dire Dawa.

He had not spoken to the detainees directly, and said he was not representing them although he was passing the information to organizations such as the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission.

“They are not appearing before the court within (the legally mandated period of) 48 hours and we do not know their whereabouts — their family or lawyers cannot visit them,” he said.

A spokesperson for the rights commission confirmed it had received reports of detentions and was monitoring them.

Officials in the prime minister’s office, the attorney general’s office and a government task force on Tigray did not respond to requests for comment on the released detainees’ reports of a wave of arrests, or on individual cases.

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