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Ethiopian leader calls on citizens to defend his government as Tigray rebels make gains

Tigray conflict intensifies in Ethiopia
Tigray conflict intensifies in Ethiopia 06:37

Johannesburg — It's been nearly one year since Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent troops in to crush rebellious forces in the country's northern Tigray region. In that time Abiy's standing as a Nobel Peace Prize laureate for ending the war with neighboring Eritrea has been undermined, as those same troops have been accused of committing unspeakable atrocities.  

Now there are fears that the Tigrayan army he claimed he would defeat could head towards the capital, Addis Ababa. Over the weekend, fighters from the Tigrayan Defence Force seized control of parts of Dessie, a city just less than 250 miles from Addis Ababa, and captured Kombolcha, with its major airport. With control over those two cities, the Tigrayans effectively control access to a major highway leading to the capital.  

Ethiopia Tigray Conflict New Offensive
Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed speaks behind bulletproof glass at his inauguration ceremony after being sworn in for a second five-year term, in the capital Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Oct. 4, 2021. Mulugeta Ayene/AP

In an act of hubris, Abiy claimed that an offensive he launched in October would recapture the Tigrayan capital of Mekele in just 10 days, but that initiative has been left in tatters as the Tigrayan forces make their most decisive advances since they took back Mekele in June. 

Abiy has now issued a terrifying call for citizens to take up arms to defend his government — demanding that loyalists double efforts to defend the seat of power using "any type of weapon" available to them. 

"Dying for Ethiopia is a duty for all of us," declared the prime minister.  

Ethiopian government intensifies assault on Tigray forces; UN condemns expulsion of senior officials 07:22

Ethiopia is a multi-ethnic country with a long history of inter-ethnic violence and resentment. The country has dozens of different ethnic groups, but five, the Oromo, Amhara, Tigrayan, Afar and Somali, represent 85% of the population. These groups were, at one point, all represented in the political system governing the country, but that system has broken down.  

The immediate trigger for the current military conflict was Tigray's decision to hold an unauthorized election in 2020, after Abiy postponed national elections citing the coronavirus pandemic.

On November 4, 2020, Abiy sent the Ethiopian military into Tigray, claiming he was responding to an attack by Tigrayans on a government military camp.

The conflict has escalated since then, taking a devastating toll on both civilians and military forces. As many as several hundred thousand people are believed to have been killed, but the exact numbers are unknown, as very few journalists have been allowed in to report on the crisis.

Ethiopia Tigray Crisis Abuses
People are seen in front of clouds of black smoke from fires in the aftermath of an airstrike in Mekele, the capital of the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia, Oct. 20, 2021. AP

The war has led to accusations of ethnic cleansing and frequent claims of rape, massacre and widespread human rights abuses.

It has also created a desperate humanitarian crisis.

Abiy has blocked food aid convoys from reaching up to a million people trapped, mostly women and children, who are near starvation in the region where the conflict is taking place. When the United Nations strongly condemned this, accusing Abiy's government of using hunger as a weapon of war, U.N. personnel were booted out of the country.     

U.S. sends aid to Ethiopia in hopes of easing hunger crisis in Tigray 02:46

In addition to the U.N., Doctors Without Borders and the Norwegian Refugee Council have also been banned, making it extremely difficult to get aid into affected areas.   

It's estimated that about 4.5 million people are in need of aid, and about 1 million are in areas that are currently inaccessible. In June, the U.N. estimated that 400,000 people were already at risk of famine-like conditions, and the situation has only deteriorated since then.

The U.S. reaction

The international reaction hasn't been particularly strong, and with attention focused elsewhere the explosive nature of the crisis might go unnoticed.   

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Twitter that Washington was alarmed by the reports of the takeover of the two towns, saying "continued fighting would prolong the dire humanitarian crisis."  

The U.S. envoy for the Horn of Africa, Jeffrey Feltman, said on Tuesday that Washington opposed any attempt by the Tigrayan forces to move toward Addis Ababa. 

Feltman called the spread of the conflict "unacceptable" and said the situation was "even more alarming than it was a few months ago." He warned of "disastrous consequences" for the Ethiopia's stability — and its ties with the U.S. — if the fighting isn't reined in.  

The U.S. government is considering suspending Ethiopia's duty-free market status, citing human rights abuses and the growing famine. Suspension of these benefits would threaten Ethiopia's aspirations to become a manufacturing hub, and they would be a huge blow after some hard-won economic gains for Abiy's government.   

A lot of blame has been laid at the feet of the prime minister, for inciting decades-old ethnic divisions. If his government falls, he'll leave behind an economy in ruin, and a shattered country.   

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