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Fighting escalates in northern Ethiopia with new army offensive

Members of Amhara Special Forces are seen along a street in Humera Town, Ethiopia, on July 1, 2021.(Photo by Reuters)

Fighting has escalated between Ethiopia's national army and rebels from Tigray, days after Addis Ababa launched a new major offensive in the restive northern region.

Getachew Reda, a spokesman for the rebel Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), said on Wednesday that there had been fresh clashes between the Tigrayan rebels and government troops in the town of Awra, in the country's northern region of Afar.

However, he denied claims by humanitarian sources who had told the AFP news agency that the TPLF rebels had used heavy weapons during the Tuesday clashes in Afar and killed multiple civilians.

"Enemy forces are crumbling and in disarray in parts of Afar," the spokesman said, adding "We do not target civilians and the alleged artillery attack is yet another [fictitious] accusation to tarnish our forces' reputation."

Ethiopian troops, alongside forces from the northern region of Amhara, launched coordinated attacks in Tigray just days after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was sworn in for a new five-year term as the leader of Africa's second-most populous country on October 4.

The renewed assault has raised fears of a more devastating humanitarian crisis in a region the United Nations says is already in the grip of famine following a yearlong conflict.

Getachew said the TPLF's current military objective was to "push back the offensive and go as far as it takes to break the siege on the people of Tigray."

Tigray is under a de facto blockade that is preventing most aid from getting in, according to the UN. Ethiopian authorities and the TPLF have blamed each other for obstructing deliveries. Ethiopian officials also accuse the international community of ignoring alleged abuses by the TPLF.

The conflict in Tigray has killed thousands of people and pushed 400,000 people to the brink of famine, according to analyses by UN agencies and aid groups. Ethiopia's government, however, has disputed those claims.

Last week, TPLF sources said there had been "mostly air, drone and artillery bombardment" of rebels, and reported a major troop build-up. Ethiopian officials have not explicitly confirmed that the offensive is underway, though Abiy's office said this week the government had "a responsibility to protect its citizens in all parts of the country from any acts of terrorism."

Abiy's government has faced criticism over the conflict, notably from the US, a longtime ally, with President Joe Biden signing an executive order allowing for sanctions against the warring parties if they fail to commit to a negotiated settlement.

Tigray has been the scene of conflict since November 2020, when Abiy sent troops there to topple the TPLF in response to attacks on army camps.

Three weeks later, the government declared victory when it gained control of the regional capital, Mekelle. However, the TPLF forces resumed fighting later and retook Mekelle and most of Tigray at the end of June after the government withdrew its soldiers and declared a ceasefire.

The fighting has continued since then.

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

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