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Ethiopian leader rejects concerns of a brewing civil war as clashes reportedly leave hundreds dead

Ethiopian military seizes airport in Humera
Ethiopian military seizes airport amid growing conflict 03:10
Members of the Amhara militia, who fight alongside federal and regional forces against troops in the northern region of Tigray, ride through the city of Gondar, November 8, 2020.  EDUARDO SOTERAS/AFP/Getty

Johannesburg, South Africa — While much of the world was waiting anxiously for the results of the U.S. presidential election last week, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was sending soldiers to the north of his own country. He said troops loyal to the regional administration in the Tigray province had attacked a national government military base, and he was responding to quell the violence.   

But the crisis has escalated quickly, with the Reuters and AP news agencies citing government sources as saying hundreds have been killed, on both sides. There has been no independent verification of the figures, as Abiy's government has cut communication links in Tigray. 

The rapid escalation of the crisis has shocked many observers, especially coming after the Ethiopian leader received the Nobel Peace Prize just last year for helping end a two-decade conflict with neighboring Eritrea.  

He came into power with an ambitious agenda, promising to transform what was one of Africa's most repressive countries and root out corruption. The Tigray People's Liberation Front felt they were disproportionately targeted by his efforts.

FILE PHOTO: Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed speaks at a news conference at his office in Addis Ababa
Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed speaks at a news conference at his office in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, August 1, 2019. REUTERS

Prior to Abiy's election, the ethnic Tigrayan people had dominated Ethiopian national politics, despite making up only about 6% of the population. Abiy belongs to the country's largest ethnic group, the Oromo.

The tipping point came in September, when Abiy postponed parliamentary elections due to the coronavirus. Tigray leaders said it was a ploy by Aiby to mount a power grab, and they defied the ban, going ahead with their own elections in the region. The tension came to a head last week with the purported attack on a military base. 

On Monday, Abiy played down the clashes as "law enforcement operations," which he said would conclude as soon "as the criminal junta is disarmed, legitimate administration in the region restored, and fugitives apprehended and brought to justice — all of them rapidly coming within reach."

The United Nations has offered to help resolve the conflict and the African Union has called for a ceasefire, but no breakthroughs appeared imminent as of Tuesday, there was a deep fear that Ethiopia could descend into all civil war along ethnic lines.

Abiy has said he's not ignoring international calls for calm and has vehemently denied that his country is on the brink of civil war. 

On Tuesday, reports said Abiy's forces had seized control of Tigray's airport, as allegations that neighboring Eritrea was engaging in the fight highlighted the risk of the crisis snowballing into not only a civil war, but a regional conflict.

Tigrayan leader Debretsion Gebremichael accused Eritrea of sending troops across the border to back up Abiy's forces by attacking regional troops. Eritrea's Foreign Minister Osman Saleh Mohammed rejected the allegation in a phone interview with Reuters, saying it remained "an internal conflict" for Ethiopia. "We are not part of the conflict," he said.

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