Ethiopia: the fall of the capital of Tigray opens a new phase of the war
Rebel fighters in Ethiopia’s Tigray region surprised by taking back control of the regional capital Mekele on Monday, a turning point greeted by scenes of jubilation in the streets of this local stronghold.
At a time when the first public meeting of the UN Security Council dedicated to Tigray is expected on Friday, the international community is worried about the continuation of the conflict, in particular the dramatic humanitarian situation.
As of Monday, Addis Ababa announced a “unilateral ceasefire” but the rebels continued their advance, taking a vast majority of this region of the far north which had been in the hands of the federal army for seven months.
In the first weeks of the military operation launched on November 4 by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to drive out the dissident regional authorities from the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the federal army had encountered few resistance.
From November 28, after other key cities, Mekele fell and Mr. Abiy declared victory in Tigray.
But the federal forces never succeeded in fulfilling one of their main objectives: to arrest and disarm the leaders of the TPLF, including the former strongman of the region, Debretsion Gebremichael.
At the same time, the pro-TPLF forces, called the Tigray Defense Forces (TDF), organized themselves, relying on the support of the population to prepare the counter-offensive.
Named Operation Alula – named after a famous 19th-century Tigrayan general – it was launched on June 18, three days before the much-anticipated national elections being held across much of Ethiopia.
On Tuesday, Mr. Abiy himself acknowledged the element of surprise.
“As the army passed through a village without noticing any movement of the enemy, many people suddenly appeared and attacked and slaughtered the army using Kalashnikovs or even machetes,” the prime minister said. .
– Word against word –
Unsurprisingly, the TDF capitalized on their impressive progress to congratulate themselves on their superiority, according to them, on the battlefield.
Conversely, Addis Ababa sought to downplay the importance of the army’s withdrawal. Mr Abiy thus declared that Mekele no longer had “the same interest” as in November.
Redwan Hussein, spokesman for the government crisis cell for Tigray, said the rebels were “no longer an existential threat to the well-being of the nation”, adding that Ethiopia had other challenges. safe to focus on.
So many statements which, according to William Davison, senior analyst at the International Crisis Group (ICG) think tank, amount to “justifications to save face”.
“The war has undoubtedly been a burden on the government. Yes, there are other things they would like to focus on. But I think this withdrawal stems from a position of weakness, ”he explains.
In the same sense, he adds, the TDF have probably “exaggerated” the losses inflicted on the federal army.
– Next hot spots –
During these eight months of conflict, the Amhara region, located south of Tigray, as well as Eritrea, a neighboring country bordering its northern limit, sent their own soldiers there to support the Ethiopian army.
Troops from Eritrea – which has yet to react to the ceasefire announcement – have been blamed for some of the war’s worst massacres, leading the United States and the European Union to call for repeatedly when they leave.
This week, Redwan said that the withdrawal had started, which the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (Ocha) confirmed on Thursday, saying that the Eritreans have largely “withdrawn from Tigray”, moving towards their border.
At the same time, Getachew Reda, one of the TDF spokespersons, calling the ceasefire a “joke”, went so far as to threaten to “march” on Addis Ababa and Asmara to defend Tigray.
But, according to Davison, the immediate priority of the TDF seems rather to be on the areas of the west and the south of the region, annexed at the start of the conflict by the forces of Amhara.
“It seems very unlikely that the Tigray Defense Forces will agree to a regional ceasefire as long as this (amhara) presence continues,” Davison observed.
– Aid and famine –
As the conflict continues, the humanitarian situation increasingly worries the international community.
The United States estimates that 900,000 people are “likely already facing starvation conditions.”
On Thursday, the UN and several NGOs confirmed the destruction of a bridge located on a crucial axis for the delivery of food aid, which increases fears of a possible “blockade”.
According to the UN, the bridge was “reportedly” destroyed by Amhara forces, although the government blamed Tigray forces on Friday.
Mr. Abiy’s government has repeatedly pledged to facilitate humanitarian access and to provide aid itself. He said on Monday that the ceasefire was motivated by humanitarian reasons.
But, with electricity and telecommunications cut, flights suspended and most roads blocked, UN officials and diplomats fear the situation will deteriorate further.
“A ceasefire does not mean cutting off electricity in a region or destroying critical infrastructure,” Josep Borrell, the head of European diplomacy, said on Twitter on Friday.
“A credible ceasefire means doing everything possible to ensure that aid reaches the millions of children, women and men who urgently need it,” he added.