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Ethiopia’s war in Tigray shows no signs of abating, despite government’s victory claims

Ethiopian refugees who fled the Tigray conflict wait to fill their jerrycans with water at Um Raquba reception camp in Sudan on Dec. 3, 2020. (Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty Images)

NAIROBI — Clashes continued across Ethiopia's Tigray region and humanitarian aid remained paused at its border Friday, despite government claims that military operations had ceased and pledges to allow U.N. agencies access to hundreds of thousands of people who rely on them for food.

The conflict exploded a month ago between Ethiopia’s new leader, Abiy Ahmed, a young and reform-minded ex-soldier who won last year’s Nobel Peace Prize, and the country’s old ruling faction: the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, a powerful regional political party that dominated Ethiopian affairs for 27 years until Abiy’s rise.

Abiy had begun to dismantle the TPLF’s grip on state institutions, deepening their political rivalry. It spilled into warfare over control of vast amounts of federal military equipment stationed in Tigray, and the TPLF’s decision to go ahead with regional elections despite a government ban amid the pandemic. Abiy has so far rejected international attempts to mediate.

Diplomats, aid workers and analysts said in interviews that the war in Tigray, Ethiopia’s northernmost region, was far from over even with government troops in effective control of the region’s main city, Mekele. The fighting has shifted to Tigray’s many craggy mountain ranges — difficult terrain where TPLF leaders and militia hold the advantage of familiarity and have been able to regroup.

“We have reports of fighting still going on in many parts of Tigray,” said Saviano Abreu, spokesman for the United Nations’ humanitarian coordination office, adding that security concerns were preventing aid missions from crossing into the region. “We have not, indeed, been able to send personnel or relief items to Tigray [yet].”

The TPLF’s leadership remains largely intact despite abandoning Mekele last week. On Thursday, in a message aired on a regional television network, one prominent leader called on supporters to “rise and deploy to battle in tens of thousands.” TPLF officials did not respond to requests for comment and have kept their whereabouts secret.

Humanitarian crisis

The fighting has prevented a full assessment of what is almost certainly a dire humanitarian crisis.

“Those displaced by this conflict are living on borrowed time,” said Nigel Tricks, regional director for the Norwegian Refugee Council.

Agencies such as the NRC, International Committee of the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders were not granted access to Tigray in the Wednesday agreement between Addis Ababa and the United Nations. But hundreds of workers from non-U. N. relief groups have been stranded there since fighting began.

“There will be many displaced within Tigray on top of the hundreds of thousands already needing aid,” Tricks said. “And we know essential supplies are running out or have run out.”

On Friday, the U.N.’s refugee agency said that more than 47,000 people had crossed into neighboring Sudan seeking safety since the conflict began. Many came with harrowing stories of survival.

Babar Baloch, the agency’s spokesman, said that camps within Tigray — home to nearly 100,000 refugees from neighboring Eritrea — “remain incommunicado” and that he continued to receive “disturbing reports” of “damage and disruption” to them.

Most of Tigray remains under a transport blockade as well as communications blackout.

Clampdowns on both local and foreign press and other observers have made claims even harder to verify. Ethiopian journalists have been arrested, few foreign journalists have been granted visas, only one has gotten permission to travel to Tigray under government supervision. Numerous independent Ethiopian political analysts declined to comment for fear of reprisal.

How many killed?

The question of how many have been killed is one of the trickiest to answer. In announcing the capture of Mekele, Abiy claimed that no civilians had been killed in the offensive on the city. Doctors in Mekele’s biggest hospital, however, recently told the New York Times that 27 people were killed in indiscriminate shelling. The Red Cross issued a statement a day after Abiy’s announcement saying the hospital was running low on body bags, among other necessities.

A Red Cross spokeswoman said Friday that their Ethiopian partner organization has a network of 18 ambulances “that have been working throughout this crisis and have transported hundreds of injured people to medical facilities in Amhara and Tigray.”

Getachew Reda, a senior TPLF leader, told Tigray TV, a regional network, that tens of thousands of Ethiopian federal soldiers had been killed, but wouldn’t quantify how many TPLF-aligned fighters had died. A spokeswoman for Abiy’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

William Davison, a senior Ethiopia analyst at the International Crisis Group, said that thousands had probably been killed, and that the conflict risked exacerbating ethnic rivalries which could result in more bloodshed. Davison was recently expelled by the Ethiopian government over alleged labor law violations.

Davison and others said much of Tigray was still clearly contested between federal forces and the TPLF, despite Addis Ababa’s claims to the contrary.

“Still, with no external support or open supply lines, [the TPLF] will be relying heavily on the backing of the Tigrayan people to be able to sustain armed resistance,” Davison said.

On Wednesday, the leader of a provisional government for Tigray, set up by Abiy’s administration, had taken up their posts in at least one city in the region, according to the state-run news agency.

TPLF leaders were defiant and referred to federal forces as “invaders.” Reda, in his televised address, said a scenario was approaching in which the TPLF would be forced to “turn all the people into soldiers.”

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