Tigray forces mobilise against militias from neighbouring province
Insurgent forces in Tigray are mobilising for new conflict against militia from a neighbouring province in Ethiopia, with thousands of new volunteers joining their ranks after federal forces withdrew following more than eight months of war.
Ethiopian federal forces declared a unilateral ceasefire and pulled out of Mekelle, the capital of Tigray province, as well as dozens of other towns eight days ago.
Witnesses in Aksum and other cities in Tigray told the Guardian they have seen long convoys of troops loyal to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) heading westwards, apparently redeploying to positions facing militia from neighbouring Amhara province.
The TPLF moved into Mekelle, a stronghold of the party, shortly after federal forces withdrew. At the weekend, the party, which dominated Ethiopian politics for decades before being sidelined since the prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, took power in 2018, paraded thousands of captured Ethiopian troops through the city.
Recruiting offices across Tigray are crowded as many young men who had hidden from federal forces and their allies from the neighbouring country of Eritrea return to towns now once more under the control of the TPLF, multiple witnesses told the Guardian. Trucks full of new recruits have also been seen in towns in central Tigray.
On Monday, Abiy sought to explain the withdrawal from Tigray, which came eight months after federal forces were sent into the province to oust the TPLF from power following rising tensions and attacks on national military bases, to parliament.
The 44-year-old leader described the ceasefire as a “moment of reflection”.
“The value we place on peace is priceless. It’s the basis for our national prosperity,” said Abiy, who won the Nobel peace prize in 2019 after concluding an agreement with Eritrea that ended a decades-long war.
In a speech, Abiy blamed the TPLF for the conflict, saying the “terrorist TPLF mobilised the people of Tigray for war” and had paid “elements” throughout Ethiopia to destabilise the country.
The “law enforcement operation” in Tigray had been a success, Abiy said, as federal government had “taken back weaponry seized illegally”, thwarted efforts to divide Ethiopian society and “apprehended key leadership of the criminal clique”. Now officials had decided there “should be a period of silence for everyone to think”.
The uncompromising language will dismay international observers, who hope that the ceasefire in Tigray will lead to some kind of political settlement, though many fear renewed fighting.
The government in Addis Ababa has always refused to open any dialogue with the TPLF leaders, classifying the group as a terrorist organisation by parliamentary decree.
Abiy also said the Ethiopian government could mobilise huge numbers of forces, including half a million militia troops or a million youths who could be trained.
The most likely flashpoint for new hostilities is along the new frontline between Tigrayan forces and the paramilitaries from Amhara who fought alongside regular federal forces from last November. The Amharan militia have been accused of systematic ethnic cleansing in the west of Tigray and remain in possession of a swath of western Tigray, which TPLF officials want to reclaim.
In Aksum, where there was heavy fighting and a massacre of hundreds blamed on Eritrean troops, dozens of trucks drove through the centre of the town on Saturday carrying hundreds new recruits and more experienced fighters. Onlookers cheered the convoy.
Humanitarian workers based in the area described to the Guardian a surge in recruitment and military traffic on roads.
“Suddenly there is a lot of movement. There are the trucks full of soldiers and recruits, then there are a lot of people moving around, trying to get home, looking for lost relatives, trying to find food. Before they were simply too frightened,” said one, who requested anonymity.
There are also reports of young men leaving camps for those displaced from Tigray to join the Tigray Defence Forces, as troops loyal to the TPLF are now known.
“We’ve multiple reports of young men coming back down from hills, or from remote farms and joining up,” said one humanitarian official in Mekelle.
At the weekend the TPLF said it would accept “a ceasefire in principle” but posed strict conditions for it to be formalised, including the withdrawal from the region of all forces from both Amhara and Eritrea.
The United Nations and numerous governments have called for a ceasefire to be respected, especially to allow humanitarian aid to reach civilian populations. Millions in Tigray are threatened with famine, or already faced by critical and life-threatening shortages.
The rebel authorities are also calling for procedures to hold Ahmed and the president, Isaias Afwerki, to account for “the damage they have caused”, as well as the creation by the UN of an independent investigation body to probe the “horrific crimes” carried out during the conflict.
Thousands of civilians have died in massacres, most committed by Eritrean and Ethiopian forces.
Other conditions are humanitarian, including the distribution of aid and the safe return to Tigray of displaced people.
There has been dismay at the actions of Ethiopian forces as they withdrew and the government, which have included cutting electricity supply and communications, suspending flights as well as destroying two bridges important for the delivery of aid. Banks are also shut in the province, leading to an acute shortage of cash.
Some analysts have spoken of a blockade. Residents in Mekelle said fuel is running short, there is limited food in the city and clean water is hard to find as power outages mean pumps and filters are not working.
Ethiopia held a general election last month in which Abiy’s Prosperity party is expected to do well.