Addis Ababa – Rebels in Ethiopia’s Tigray region said on Tuesday they had been provoked into launching “robust” military operations in neighbouring Afar, dampening hopes for a possible ceasefire in the country’s 14-month war.
“Since yesterday morning (January 24), we have been compelled to take robust actions to neutralise the threat posed by” pro-government forces in Afar region, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) said in a statement.
“Tigray’s army does not have a plan to remain in Afar for long nor does it wish to see the conflict deteriorate further,” the statement added.
The move comes one month after the TPLF announced it was withdrawing from both the Afar and Amhara regions into Tigray, where fighting broke out between the rebels and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government in November 2020.
The withdrawal had spurred hopes for concrete steps to silence the guns in a conflict that has killed thousands and created a severe humanitarian crisis with many on the brink of famine.
But in Tuesday’s statement, the TPLF said Afar-based pro-government forces had intensified attacks on its positions in recent days.
It said the apparent aim of these attacks was to “obstruct humanitarian operations” and trigger a “severe security crisis” in Tigray’s capital Mekele, located roughly 50km (30 miles) from the Afar border.
Aid trucks stalled
Ethiopia’s war broke out after Abiy, winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace prize, sent troops to topple the TPLF, which once dominated national politics.
Abiy said the move came in response to TPLF attacks on army camps.
After initially losing control of Tigray’s cities and towns, the TPLF regrouped and retook the region in June, then launched offensives into Afar and Amhara.
In November the rebels claimed to be within roughly 200 kilometres of the capital Addis Ababa, prompting hasty evacuations as countries including the US and France urged their citizens to leave.
The government launched a counter-offensive, however, retaking lost territory in Amhara and Afar.
After the TPLF withdrew into Tigray, Addis Ababa announced it would not pursue them, though the region has been hit hard by deadly airstrikes – including drone strikes – in recent weeks, according to residents and aid workers.
Abiy’s government has blamed the latest hostilities on the TPLF and claimed the rebels’ moves were aimed at “cutting off the primary artery of humanitarian aid to Tigray.”
A government spokesperson said Monday that tens of thousands of people had been displaced over three days and that there were “no government defence forces in this area”.
The TPLF said it was going after an entity known as the Red Sea Afar Force as well as soldiers from Eritrea, which has backed Abiy during the conflict.
The road from Afar’s capital, Semera, to the Tigray capital Mekele is the only operational land route into Tigray, where the UN estimates hundreds of thousands are living in famine-like conditions.
Earlier Tuesday, aid workers said Mekele-bound trucks carrying 800 metric tonnes of food were stuck at a checkpoint in Afar.
Last week the UN said food distribution was at an all-time low in Tigray.
AFP documented starvation deaths in Tigray in September, and in November Tigray’s pre-war government said nearly 200 children had died of starvation in hospitals across the region.