ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia: Tigrayan fighters have reportedly taken control of more territory in the embattled northern Ethiopian region of Tigray, a day after regaining the regional capital, Mekelle, from retreating federal government forces and pledging to drive all “enemies” out.
The military advances and rhetoric cast doubt on whether a unilateral ceasefire declared on Monday by the federal government in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, would lead to a pause in the nearly eight-month-old conflict that has killed thousands of people, displaced millions and pushed hundreds of thousands to be facing famine conditions.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent troops into Tigray last November to remove the northern region’s former ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). He said the move came in response to TPLF attacks on federal army camps, an allegation rejected by the TPLF which accused Abiy’s government and neighbouring Eritrea of launching a “coordinated attack” against it.
In late November, Abiy, the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner, declared victory after federal troops entered the regional capital, Mekelle. But on Monday, the federal government’s operation suffered a heavy blow when the Tigrayan forces retook the city, only about a week after launching a major counter-offensive.
A statement overnight from Tigray’s prewar government hailed the gains and called for its fighters to press further. “The government of Tigray calls upon our people and army of Tigray to intensify their struggle until our enemies completely leave Tigray,” it said.
On Tuesday, the Tigrayan forces entered the town of Shire, about 140 kilometres northwest of Mekelle, according to a UN security source and a security assessment document.
The International Crisis Group, a conflict prevention organisation, said on Tuesday the Tigrayan fighters were now in control of most of the region, including major towns.
They achieved these gains mainly through mass popular support and capturing arms and supplies from adversaries.
The news has prompted street celebrations in multiple locations as federal soldiers, their Eritrean allies and members of an Abiy-appointed interim regional government have fled their posts.
“The population has taken to the streets in droves. Huge crowds line the main routes and movement is somewhat difficult,” a UN security assessment document said.
On Tuesday evening, Getachew Reda, a spokesman for Tigrayan forces said they were prepared to chase their opponents well beyond Tigray – even as far as the capitals of Ethiopia and neighbouring Eritrea, which has allied itself with Abiy.
“We’ll do whatever it takes to secure Tigray. If marching to Asmara is what it takes to secure Tigray, we will do it. If marching to Addis is what it takes to secure Tigray, we will do it,” Getachew said. “Nothing is off the table,” he added, dismissing the ceasefire declaration as “a joke”.
Besides Shire, the Associated Press news agency reported that Eritrean soldiers – accused by witnesses of some of the war’s worst atrocities – had also left the towns of Axum and Adwa. People in close contact with witnesses who confirmed the withdrawal spoke on condition of anonymity for their safety.
It was not immediately clear, however, where the Eritrean troops were going or whether the retreat was temporary. There was no immediate comment by Eritrea’s information ministry.
“We don’t yet know if they are withdrawing” from Tigray altogether, Robert Godec, the acting United States assistant secretary of state, told the House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs.
He said the US had seen no statement from Eritrea, nor from the Tigray fighters, saying they are committed to the ceasefire announced by Abiy’s government.
In addition to Eritrea, federal forces have received support from Ethiopia’s Amhara region, which borders Tigray to the south.
Amhara forces have been accused of annexing portions of Tigray in what US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has described as “ethnic cleansing”.