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Ethiopia police arrest hundreds for alleged support for Tigray forces

Members of the Amhara militia gather in the village of Adi Arkay, 180 kilometers northeast from the city of Gondar, Ethiopia, on July 14, 2021. (Photo by AFP)

Ethiopian authorities have arrested hundreds of people on suspicion of supporting Tigrayan forces in the country's war-torn northern region, in what human rights groups describe as an ethnically-motivated crackdown.

Addis Ababa Police Commissioner, Getu Argaw, told state media on Saturday that those arrested had suspected links to the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF).

"323 people suspected of helping the TPLF in various activities have been arrested," the police official announced, adding that, "Businesses that are alleged to have links to the suspects have been shuttered and are currently under investigation."

He added that some of the arrested suspects were also being investigated for the possession of weapons and drugs, as well as gambling. Violating the national flag and the country's constitution were other charges brought against some of those arrested.

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

Fighting erupted in Tigray in November when the government accused the TPLF--once the region’s powerful ruling party--of attacking military bases across the north.

Three weeks later, the government declared victory when it gained control of the regional capital, Mekelle. TPLF forces, who had retreated to the mountainous areas around the Tigrayan capital, however, continued to fight the government forces supported by Eritrean troops.

The United Nations says the fighting has already left thousands of people dead and pushed 400,000 into famine.

Meanwhile, TPLF's leader, Debretsion Gebremichael, who has fled to an unknown location and remains in hiding, announced that around 1,000 low-ranking Ethiopian soldiers who were captured recently after Mekelle fell into rebel hands had been released.

However, Gebremichael said thousands more were still in the custody of TPLF.

"More than 5,000 (soldiers) are still with us, and we will keep the senior officers who will face trial," he said.

He added that the captured soldiers had been transferred to Tigray's southern border with the Amhara region on Friday, but did not offer further details.

TPLF retook Mekelle and most of Tigray at the end of June after the government pulled out its soldiers and declared a now faltering ceasefire.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, whose party recently won general elections extending his tenure for five more years, said this week that the military would repel any TPLF threat, effectively abandoning the unilateral ceasefire.

TPLF, which had played a major role in Ethiopian politics before Abiy came to power, sees itself as a strong force in the region.

Humanitarian crisis

The United Nations has sounded the alarm, warning about a looming humanitarian crisis threatening the region. It said that Tigray desperately needed aid and that relief was being blocked by federal troops at government checkpoints leading to the conflict zone.

The Ethiopian authorities have defended the military restrictions on transportation to and from the conflict zones, citing security concerns.

The government insists the aid convoys headed to Tigray need to be inspected for arms.

Ethiopia's foreign ministry issued a statement on Friday claiming that international aid groups operating in the region were in fact arming the rebel forces.

"Some aid agencies have been actively engaged in a destructive role. We have also confirmed that they have been using aid as a cover and are arming the rebel groups to prolong the conflicts," it said.

Meanwhile, the regional governments in Amhara and three other regions have announced that they would be fighting alongside Addis Ababa against TPLF.

They said that they were mobilizing their armed forces to strengthen the federal troops in their new military campaign targeting the TPLF fighters in Tigray.

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