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Ethiopia: Latest fighting in Tigray and Amhara has no clear gains for either side

By Fred Harter
Posted on Monday, 25 October 2021 10:00, updated on Monday, 1 November 2021 18:13

Ethiopia Tigray Crisis
Smoke from fires billows at the scene of an airstrike in Mekele, the capital of the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021. (AP Photo, File)

Fighting continues to rage in northern Ethiopia after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed launched a major offensive involving thousands of troops against rebels from the country’s Tigray region earlier this month.

The push is aimed at retaking parts of Amhara that the Tigray forces occupied after reclaiming much of their region in June. Federal troops are being supported by regional militias from Amhara after politicians launched a mass mobilisation drive there, calling on all able-bodied men to join the fight and touting it as a battle for survival.

Trying to flee

Access to the front is restricted and the fighting is taking place amid a communications blackout in some parts of the country, making it difficult to chart its course, but reports indicate that the offensive has stalled. The Tigrayan rebels claim to have pushed south towards Dessie, a major city housing tens of thousands of people displaced by the conflict.

On Wednesday 20 October, Tigray spokesman Getachew Reda claimed Dessie and the nearby town of Kombolcha was now within range of his force’s artillery, sparking panic in the town. Residents tell The Africa Report that they could hear the constant rumble of artillery nearby and describe a stream of vehicles leaving the city laden with furniture, cooking equipment and other household items as people tried to flee.

One resident who asks to remain anonymous for fear or retaliation says he was trapped in Dessie because he could not afford  transportation for his family. “We are very afraid,” he says. “You see a lot of tension in the city.”

‘It’s spread all over’

A humanitarian source says the fighting is dispersed across a wide front, with several smaller villages and towns regularly changing hands. “It’s not just one front line, it’s spread all over, and things are escalating quite significantly,” they say.

It is not clear how many casualties have been sustained by either side during the battle, which is also taking place in the Afar region. Several humanitarian agencies have pulled staff out of Dessie and Kombolcha in recent days as the fighting gets closer.

The federal airstrikes [last] week on targets in and around Mekelle may well reflect the fact that the conflict in Amhara has not been going well for Addis Ababa.”

Faced with reversals on the ground, the federal government launched an air offensive against Mekelle, the Tigrayan capital, last week. It claims the strikes are aimed at military targets such as training centres and communications towers, but the United Nations says a strike killed three children on Monday and wounded two others while they were harvesting crops.

Further strikes damaged a hotel and a factory in Mekelle. The government claims the factory was being used to make armaments, but a Tigrayan spokesman claims it was manufacturing civilian cars.

“The federal offensive has the clear objective of pushing the Tigray forces out of the Amhara region and, to a lesser extent, Afar,” says William Davison, senior Ethiopia analyst at the International Crisis Group. “But the Tigray forces have instead made gains, notably Chifra town on the Amhara-Afar border, and they have also advanced south from Weldiya.”

“The federal airstrikes [last] week on targets in and around Mekelle may well reflect the fact that the conflict in Amhara has not been going well for Addis Ababa,” Davison says.

Ethiopia’s federal military and its regional allies suffered heavy losses when they were pushed out of Tigray earlier this year and much of their forces now comprise fresh recruits, one possible reason why the offensive has faltered despite the government’s advantage in terms of resources and manpower.

Worsening humanitarian situation

Meanwhile, the humanitarian situation continues to worsen in Tigray, where the United Nations estimates 400,000 people are experiencing ‘famine-like’ conditions amid restrictions on aid entering the province.

On Friday 22 October, the UN suspended humanitarian flights to Mekelle out of safety concerns, when an airstrike struck the city shortly before an aid plane was due to land there. Its latest situation report says food aid reached just 1% of its target population from 7-13 October.

For now, there seems little or no chance of either side sitting down at the negotiating table, despite international calls for a ceasefire. However, there are rumours that the government has indicated it is willing to talk.

“The prospects for peace are very slim but they are there, even though Amhara nationalists are putting pressure on the government not to negotiate,” says Moges Zewdu Teshome, an independent analyst. “Eventually, there will be a negotiated settlement. The question is how soon, [but] in the meantime, people are dying and facing famine, not just in Tigray but also in Amhara and Afar.”

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