A widening conflict in northern Ethiopia has forced thousands of people, after months-long conflict between rebels and government forces spread from the Tigray region to neighboring Afar state.
Ahmed Kaloyta, a spokesman for the Afar region, said on Thursday that attacks by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) forced 54,000 people to flee their homes in Afar.
“The districts of Yalo, Golina and Awra were fully captured by the TPLF and over 54,000 people were displaced from these places,” the spokesman said. “The regional government is trying to relocate these internally displaced people.”
Debretsion Gebremichael, leader of the TPLF, said that Tigrayan forces were in Afar and that they planned to target forces from the neighboring Amhara region, which has been fighting on behalf of the government.
Fighting began in Afar at the weekend, when TPLF fighters crossed the state border in pursuit of government soldiers and allied forces who fled after the rebels regained control of Tigray from federal government forces last month.
Tigrayan fighters had reportedly taken control of three districts in Afar this week. The region is of strategic importance because the main road and railway linking Addis Ababa, landlocked Ethiopia's capital, to the sea port of Djibouti runs through it.
The sustained fighting in Afar highlights the potential for Ethiopia's eight-month-old conflict to expand well beyond Tigray, where the fighting has already left thousands of people dead and pushed 400,000 into famine.
Getachew Reda, the TPLF spokesman, said on Tuesday that Tigrayan forces would do "whatever it takes" to get the government to accept their conditions for ceasefire negotiations.
Those include the full withdrawal of government troops and their allies from Tigray's pre-war borders and the restoration of services such as electricity, telecommunications, transport links and banking.
On Sunday, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) said a convoy carrying food for Ethiopia's conflict-ridden region of Tigray came under attack at the weekend, as a humanitarian crisis is looming in the northern region.
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.
TPLF retook the regional capital Mekelle and most of Tigray at the end of June after the government pulled out its soldiers and declared a now faltering ceasefire.
TPLF, which had played a major role in Ethiopian politics before Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power, sees itself as a strong force in the region.
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 federal troops in their new military campaign targeting the TPLF fighters in Tigray.
The conflict has sparked international criticism of premier Abiy and concern for the stability of Africa's second most populous nation.