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Ethiopia’s prime minister calls for mass enlistment amid battlefield losses to Tigray rebels

Ethiopians take part in a rally in the capital, Addis Ababa, on Aug. 8 to support the army and condemn the movement of Tigrayan fighters into the Amhara and Afar regions. (Tiksa Negeri/Reuters)

NAIROBI — Amid a string of battlefield losses that have allowed rebels from Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region to move into neighboring areas and down a key highway leading to the capital, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s prime minister called Tuesday for a national war effort, including mass enlistment.

“Now is the right time for all capable Ethiopians who are of age to join the Defence Forces, Special Forces and militias and show your patriotism,” Abiy Ahmed’s office said in a lengthy statement. He alleged that the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), a political party that controlled Ethiopia for three decades and has been fighting the government for the past nine months, is being aided by “foreign hands.”

In recent weeks, the war in Tigray has spread into the Amhara and Afar regions as the TPLF’s militia has pursued its stated aim of debilitating the military capabilities of Ethiopia’s government and defeating aligned forces from neighboring Eritrea and ethnic militias that support the government.

The increased fighting has deepened an already dire humanitarian catastrophe. Millions of people in Tigray are relying on aid to survive, but obstructionism that each warring side blames on the other has severely hampered aid deliveries. Now, hundreds of thousands more civilians in Amhara and Afar have been affected. In the three regions, at least 700,000 people are facing “emergency levels of hunger,” according to the United Nations.

Last week, the TPLF seized the town of Lalibela in the Amhara region, home to 12th- and 13th-century rock-hewn churches that are world heritage sites. On Monday, the rebels pushed farther into Amhara, taking the city of Woldiya, a key transport junction on the road connecting Addis Ababa, the Amhara capital Bahir Dar, Djibouti and Tigray.

Samantha Power has long championed humanitarian intervention. Ethiopia’s crisis is putting her to the test.

The war has been marked by alleged atrocities committed by both sides. Because of a communications blackout and heavily restricted access for journalists and human rights groups, independent verification has been difficult, and the TPLF and Addis Ababa regularly blame each other for specific incidents. The Ethiopian government has designated the TPLF a “terrorist organization.”

Denouncing the latest atrocity, Henrietta Fore, head of the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF, said Monday that she was “extremely alarmed by the reported killing of over 200 people, including more than 100 children, in attacks Thursday on displaced families” in the Afar region. Her statement did not specify who might have been responsible.

At least a dozen aid workers have been killed since November, when Abiy sent troops to Tigray to fight the TPLF after the group staged an attack on a military base.

Washington has called for a cease-fire and dialogue, but the situation on the ground has turned decidedly toward a broader conflict. Abiy’s call for mass enlistment marked an expansion of a new strategy that draws on regional militias from parts of Ethiopia, such as the Somali region and Oromia, that were not previously involved in the war in Tigray.

In response to Abiy’s remarks, State Department spokesman Ned Price said Tuesday that “inflamed rhetoric makes it more difficult for all parties to come to the table and negotiate an end to this conflict.”

"The focus as we see it should be and must be on dialog that is needed for inclusive peace and importantly, to end the suffering of the civilan people,” he added.

Last week, Samantha Power, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, made a one-day visit to Addis Ababa, hoping to exercise her leverage as head of an organization that gives Ethiopia more than $1 billion in annual aid. She did not meet with Abiy.

The United States and other Western governments have alleged that Ethiopia’s military and aligned forces have engaged in a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Tigrayans during the war — a charge Addis Ababa has vehemently denied. Human rights groups have also gathered widespread testimony from Tigrayans of being subjected to sexual violence and forced hunger.

Northern Ethiopia’s main planting season runs from June to September, but both planting and harvesting have been curtailed by the fighting, raising fears of an imminent spread of famine-like conditions.

“It has become apparent that Tigrayan farmers will not be able to farm safely unless the people of Tigray are forever separated from the terrorist group,” the prime minister’s office said in its statement Tuesday.

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