Ethiopian military, diplomatic officials threaten to send troops back into Tigray

Ethiopian military, diplomatic officials threaten to send troops back into Tigray

The Ethiopian military and diplomatic officials have threatened to send troops back into Tigray less than 48 hours after announcing that Addis Ababa had declared a unilateral ceasefire in the devastated northern province.

The announcement on Wednesday that Ethiopian federal forces would withdraw from Tigray caught many observers by surprise, and signals a major shift in strategy. However, the new threat underlines the fragility of any current calm.

Ethiopian military officers suggested the troops had been withdrawn because they had achieved their aims.

Gen Bacha Debele, speaking to reporters in Addis Ababa, said the Ethiopian army had left Mekelle, the capital of Tigray, because the town “had ceased to be the centre of gravity that is capable of posing a threat to the nation and the federal government”.

The Guardian gathered that Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, launched federal troops into Tigray last November after attacks by Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) forces on army bases. After making swift gains and ousting the TPLF from its stronghold in Mekelle, the provincial capital, government forces have been unable to capture senior TPLF leaders or quell an intensifying insurgency.

The timing of the ceasefire declaration – which came after TPLF fighters entered Mekelle and other towns in Tigray – appeared “pretty panicky”, analysts said.

Federal security forces and officials from the central government-appointed interim administration fled Mekelle on Monday night. Residents took to the streets in jubilation, firing celebratory gunfire and fireworks.

William Davison, an analyst with the International Crisis Group, said: “It’s possible they were overtaken by events on the ground as they prepared to alter strategy. The effort to pacify Tigray was not going as planned … The developments on the battlefield aligned with growing international pressure on Abiy and his government to force them to change tack.”

Debele said that federal forces needed to be ready to face other “threats”, a possible reference to its neighbour Sudan. Relations between the two states have deteriorated sharply in the last year.

“The Ethiopian army left … Mekelle because it needs to prepare for other threats than the TPLF,” the general said.

The TPLF, which formerly ruled Ethiopia for nearly three decades, has already dismissed the government ceasefire and vowed to drive out “enemies” from the region.

“The government of Tigray calls upon our people and army of Tigray to intensify their struggle until our enemies completely leave Tigray,” a TPLF statement said earlier this week.

Getachew Reda, a senior TPLF official, told Associated Press news agency the TPLF would “stop at nothing to liberate every square inch” of Tigray, calling the ceasefire a “sick joke”.

“There will be no negotiations with Ethiopia until communications, transport and other services that have been cut or destroyed for much of the war are restored,” Getachew said.

Paramilitary and other forces from the neighbouring Amhara province have moved into Tigray in recent months, forcing out residents, while soldiers from Eritrea remain in the province.

“We have to make sure that every inch of our territory is returned to us, the rightful owners,” Getachew said.

The government forces’ invasion of Tigray in November prompted global outrage and condemnation of Abiy, a Nobel peace prize winner.

More recently, humanitarian organisations have complained that they have been blocked by Ethiopian authorities from reaching about 350,000 people believed to be on the brink of famine in Tigray. The US has threatened to use sanctions which could block much-needed financial aid packages to Ethiopia.

“The unilateral ceasefire is also an attempt to address the concerns of the international community for cessation of hostility, unimpeded access to the region,” Redwan Hussien, of the Ethiopian Foreign Ministry, told reporters in Addis Ababa.

There are fears, however, that the Ethiopian strategy will now be to blockade Tigray, denying the province power and supplies to undermine the TPLF there.

Davison said: “It looks like there is an ongoing effort to continue to pressure Tigray’s leaders, which will make, even more, Tigray ungovernable. For example, there is effectively an air and road blockade on the region and there are fuel and cash shortages as well as power and telecoms outages while retreating Ethiopian troops looted UN satellite internet equipment … so I don’t think international actors will see this as a sincere humanitarian gesture by Addis Ababa.”

Aid agency workers in Tigray close to the Eritrean border said that Eritrean and Ethiopian troops had withdrawn from several towns “after taking all the fuel and money they could find”.

“Power is down and the phones are out too. Banks are all closed and it feels like there is a blockade of the region,” said one humanitarian worker, who requested anonymity.

The eight-month conflict has also been marked by large-scale atrocities including massacres and systematic rape, which will leave a bitter legacy. There is little sign of any willingness among either the TPLF, which was declared a terrorist organisation by the Ethiopian parliament earlier this year, or Abiy’s government to negotiate a settlement of their dispute.

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