Ethiopia Faces Risk of Protracted War With Dissident State
The Ethiopian government’s assurances that it will swiftly end a conflict with the dissident northern Tigray state have been contradicted by reports that its troops continue to encounter fierce resistance from soldiers loyal to the regional authority.
A battle is currently raging near the town of Korem, about 170 kilometers (106 miles) south of the Tigrayan capital of Mekelle, according to two diplomats who’ve been briefed on the conflict and spoke on condition of anonymity. Fighting in the high-altitude area is much harder than in lower-lying territory further south and there have been heavy casualties, they said.
The hostilities erupted on Nov. 4 after months of tension between the federal and regional governments and have triggered a humanitarian crisis. Tigrayan authorities say 100,000 people have been displaced, and the United Nations has warned that an additional 1.1 million people may need aid. No official figures of the number of people who’ve been killed are available.
Federal troops have taken control over lowlands to the west, south and east of a highland escarpment in Tigray, according to Kjetil Tronvoll, an Ethiopian politics scholar at Bjorknes University College in Norway, who maintains contact with several top Tigrayan leaders.
“To continue their advance towards Mekelle, they need now literally to fight an uphill battle against well-entrenched defensive positions,” he said. “That is not an easy quick-fix law enforcement operation, but will likely be a protracted war with very high casualties numbers on the government’s side.”
Redwan Hussein, Ethiopia’s state minister of foreign affairs and spokesman for the government’s Emergency Task Force, indicated on Thursday that the Tigrayan capital’s fall was imminent.
“Our defense forces are moving forward and closing in on Mekelle,” he told reporters. “There are a number of towns that have fallen.”
On Friday, the federal government said its troops had seized control of Axum in northern Tigray and were heading east toward the town of Adigrat.
Heavy fighting occurred near the Hitsats refugee camp close to Tigray’s border with Eritrea on Thursday, according to four people with knowledge of the situation who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect the safety of humanitarian workers in the area. A reservoir close to the camp was destroyed during the fighting, leaving its more than 25,000 residents without access to running water, they said.
Tigrayan officials have said fighting continues along four separate fronts. There were renewed air strikes on Mekelle on Thursday, the region’s President Debretsion Gebremichael said in a text message, without specifying whether there had been casualties or damage.
Leake Zegeye, an associate professor at Mekelle University, said two students were killed by a bomb that exploded next to the university’s stadium on Nov. 16, while a number of others had been injured.
Meanwhile, authorities in Amhara state, which borders on Tigray, said Tigrayan forces fired rockets at the town of Bahir Dar early Friday, but they didn’t cause any damage.
The Ethiopian Red Cross Society has transported hundreds of people who’ve been injured in the clashes to hospitals that were woefully ill-equipped to deal with the influx, according to the International Committee for the Red Cross.
Mounting concerns that the crisis could drag on and spread to other parts of Ethiopia or beyond its borders are evident in the financial markets. Yields on the nation’s $1 billion of Eurobonds maturing in 2024 have surged 202 basis points since the conflict erupted and traded at 8.42% in London on Friday.
The federal government has indicated the conflict will end in the next week or two, according to U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia Michael Raynor, who said he’d spoken to Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Debretsion over the past week.
There was “a strong commitment on both sides to see the military conflict through,” Raynor told reporters on a conference call on Thursday. “Neither side felt they could articulate a basis for a negotiated or a mediated solution.”
U.S. Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Tibor Nagy said on the same call that it appeared the Tigrayan authorities were intent on deposing Abiy and reclaiming the national political clout they’d lost since he took office in 2018, he said.
“This is a faction of the government running a region in Ethiopia that has decided to undertake hostilities against the central government,” he said. “Right now I think that their tactic has had the opposite effect from what they were planning.”
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