At least 20 civilians have been killed and tens of thousands have been displaced in heavy fighting between rebels and pro-government forces in Ethiopia’s Afar region, bordering Tigray, an Ethiopian official said Thursday (July 22nd).
The fighting in the Afar region (North-East) reveals the risk of a spread of the war in Tigray, initiated by the Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed against the regional authorities, from the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which in eight months killed thousands and displaced hundreds of thousands, according to the United Nations.
On Sunday, pro-TPLF rebels claimed to have carried out limited operations there.
But Mohammed Hussen, an official for the region with the National Civil Protection Agency, told Agence France-Presse (AFP) on Thursday that the operations had been large-scale, with rebel forces having “Crossed the border with the Afar region and attacked innocent pastoral communities”. “Heavy fighting continues. Nearly 70 000 people have been directly affected and are displaced. (…) More than twenty civilians were killed ”, he added, accusing the rebels of wanting “Subdue the Afar”.
A rebel spokesman Getachew Reda called the claims that pro-TPLF forces killed civilians in “Pure lies”.
Mr. Abiy, Nobel Peace Prize winner in 2019, sent the federal army to Tigray in November 2020, after months of tension, to remove regional authorities. He accused them of attacks on federal army camps ordered by the TPLF, the party that dominated power in Ethiopia for three decades.
Mr. Abiy declared victory at the end of November after the capture of the regional capital Mekele. But the fighting continued, and recently turned against Addis Ababa. On June 28, the rebels recaptured Mekele, then much of Tigray in the following days, marking a major turning point in the conflict. Promising to repel them, Mr. Abiy mobilized regional forces, notably from Oromia, to fight alongside the federal army.
The fighting in the Afar region also disrupted the delivery of aid to Tigray. Ten vehicles of the World Food Program (WFP) were attacked on Sunday around 100 kilometers from the regional capital, Semera, prompting the UN agency to suspend its convoys via this road. This road has become vital for the delivery of humanitarian aid in recent weeks, after the destruction at the end of June of two crucial bridges located on other roads.
According to a United Nations document consulted by AFP, heavy fighting involving Afar special forces and federal army soldiers against TPLF troops took place on Wednesday in the districts of Awra and Ewa. . These two districts border southern Tigray and northern Amhara region, where thousands of militiamen have recently been deployed.
The road that connects Ethiopia to the port of Djibouti, located to the east of the Afar region, is vital for this landlocked country.
On Thursday, the head of the National Civil Protection Agency said the road was ” opened “ and “Very safe”, sweeping the contrary information as a “Propaganda” of TPLF.
Two refugee camps affected by the fighting
In Tigray itself, where pro-TPLF forces launched an offensive in the south and west of the region ten days ago to drive out Amhara troops, two camps sheltering thousands of refugees from Eritrea. neighbor were affected by the fighting.
While the UN had reported a death in one of these camps, the Ethiopian Refugee Agency (ARRA) said Thursday that at least six refugees had been killed by “Fighters” of the TPLF. ARRA accused the rebels of deploying heavy artillery in the camps, looting vehicles and depots there, and preventing refugees from leaving, “A situation equivalent to hostage-taking”, according to her.
The rebel spokesman told AFP this week that pro-TPLF forces had no intention of harming the refugees.
In Addis Ababa, a demonstration brought together tens of thousands of people in support of the army in Meskel Square, an emblematic crossroads. Protesters unfurled banners describing the TPLF as “Ethiopia’s cancer”.
The mayor of the capital, Adanech Abiebe, accused the TPLF, considered since May by the federal authorities as a “Terrorist organization”, to work with the international media to “Defame our army”.