Ethiopia’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning prime minister on Wednesday ordered the military to confront the country’s Tigray regional government after he accused it of a deadly attack on a military base, declaring “the last red line has been crossed” after months of alleged provocations.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s move against the well-armed Tigray People’s Liberation Front raised concerns that one of Africa’s most populous and powerful countries could plunge into civil war. That would send a shock wave through one of the world’s most turbulent regions, the Horn of Africa. Ethiopia’s neighbors include Somalia and Sudan, and the prospect of spreading instability sent a chill down observers’ spines.
Signaling the gravity of the threat, the United States in the midst of its election drama issued a statement urging “an immediate de-escalation.”
Abiy in a televised address announced “several martyrs” in the overnight attack in Mekele, the northern Tigray region’s capital, and Dansha town. He said “the end is near” for the regional force, based in Ethiopia’s most sensitive region, neighboring Eritrea. The two countries made peace in 2018 after a long border war.
Fighting continued Wednesday afternoon, and the TPLF claimed it had captured and killed Ethiopian army officers, a government statement said hours later.
The TPLF dominated Ethiopia’s governing coalition before Abiy took office in 2018 and announced sweeping political reforms that won him the Nobel last year. Those reforms, however, opened space for ethnic and other grievances. The TPLF, feeling marginalized by the shifts in power, left the coalition last year. Its strong military force has been reinforced in recent months, but analysts said it’s little match for the federal government.
Ethiopia declared a six-month state of emergency in Tigray on Wednesday, saying “illegal and violent activities” are “threatening the country’s sovereignty.”
A statement on Tigray TV accused the federal government of deploying troops to “cow the people of Tigray into submission by force,” and said the Tigray government was acting “to avert more destructive measures.” It banned movement by Ethiopia’s military there and warned of “proportional measures” for damage to people or property.
Tigray leader Debretsion Gebremichael on Monday warned a bloody conflict could erupt, accusing Ethiopian and Eritrean leaders of making “all necessary preparations to start war against Tigray.” There was no immediate Eritrea comment.
Internet and phone lines were cut in Tigray, provoking distress among people who could not reach loved ones. Tigray TV reported that airspace had been closed over the region, and asserted that the Ethiopian military’s northern command had defected to the Tigray government. The prime minister’s office told The Associated Press the defection report was “not true.”