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Failing a surrender, the Ethiopian military says it will bombard the regional capital, a city with a population of half a million people.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed rejected today growing international demands for dialogue or a halt to the deadly fighting in the northern Tigray region. He referred to such as calls as “interference”, adding his country will handle the conflict on its own as the 72-hour surrender expires today at 16:30 GMT.
In the same statement issued today 25 November, he asked the international community “to refrain from any unwelcome and unlawful acts of interference” in the ongoing conflict. This follows concerted efforts by the African Union, which is headquartered in Ethiopia’s capital, to bring the two sides to the table.
Adherence to the Principle of Non-Intervention in Internal Affairs pic.twitter.com/WJueoVi3rR
— Abiy Ahmed Ali 🇪🇹 (@AbiyAhmedAli) November 25, 2020
Diplomatic efforts ahead of ultimatum
In mid-November, the AU Chair, South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa, appointed three special envoys to mediate the conflict. The panel consists of three ex-presidents: Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia, Joachim Chissano of Mozambique, and Kgalema Motlanthe, one of Ramaphosa’s predecessors in South Africa.
Meanwhile, PM Abiy sent his Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Demeke Mekonnen on a regional shuttle diplomacy covering Kampala, Kinshasa, Nairobi, and Kigali. Former foreign minister and now National Security Advisor Gedu Andargachew showed up in Khartoum and Djibouti City, as Addis Ababa seeks to explain itself to its neighbours.
One of the fears behind the concerted efforts at diplomacy is that the conflict could spread into other places in Ethiopia and beyond.
In the three weeks since Addis Ababa begun its military onslaught on Tigray, the latter’s ruling TPLF has claimed responsibility for several rocket attacks on Bahir Dar and Gondar, two major cities in Amhara, and Asmara, the capital of its nemesis, neighbouring Eritrea.
On Tuesday 24 November, the UN Security Council held a meeting to discuss the ongoing conflict in Ethiopia. Part of the urgency of the meeting was the looming deadline of a 72-hour ultimatum for unconditional surrender issued by PM Abiy Ahmed on Sunday 22 November.
We are people of principle and ready to die in defence of our right to administer our region.
In what he called the “final and third phase” of the military onslaught, the Ethiopian leader said federal forces were closing in on Mekelle, the capital of Tigray. “Like terrorist groups we have seen in some countries that do not care about the people or the country, they have taken Mekelle city hostage and are treating it as a war zone rather than the home that it is for many innocent Ethiopians,” he said in the statement.
“He doesn’t understand who we are,” said TPLF leader, Debretsion Gebremichael. “We are people of principle and ready to die in defence of our right to administer our region.”
Point of no return
With the expiry of the 72-hour ultimatum to the TPLF to surrender due today, Ethiopia’s federal government is set to begin its assault on Mekelle this week. Analysts, regional watchers and human rights defenders have warned against the collective punishment and human rights violations of attacking a capital city of half a million people, but PM Abiy is now too deep in to retreat.
While the battle for Mekelle city might be short or drawn out, the real dangers lie in the scars and human carnage the entire conflict will leave in Ethiopia, as well as the damage it will do to Abiy’s reformist credentials.
EHRC report confirms massacre in Mai Kadra
Meanwhile, while the clock has been ticking during the 72 hours, a preliminary report released on 24 November confirms reports of a massacre in Mai Kadra.
At least 600 people were killed in a single night of ethnic cleansing in the ongoing conflict between the Ethiopian federal government and Tigray’s regional government.
The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) confirmed reports of the widespread massacre in Mai Kadra, a rural town of between 40,000 to 45,000 people in the Western Zone of Tigray Region. The attack began on the afternoon of 9 November and lasted until the wee hours of the next morning.
The probe finds atrocity crimes which may amount to crimes against humanity & war crimes were committed by ‘Samri’ group, aided & abetted by then-local admin, police & militia pic.twitter.com/IqMfmKzA7N
— Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (@EthioHRC) November 24, 2020
The EHRC report provides further details on the targeted massacre of male seasonal labourers, many from the neighbouring Amhara region, by a Tigrayan militia group. The night-long massacre was first reported by Amnesty International on 12 November.
- According to the EHRC, an informal Tigrayan militia group called Samri “killed hundreds of people, beating them with batons/sticks, stabbing them with knives, machetes and hatchets and strangling them with ropes. They also looted and destroyed properties.”
- Eye witnesses told the government-affiliated human rights body that all exit points from the city had been closed by local security forces in the days prior to the attacks.
Then, at 3:00pm on 9 November, the ethnic cleansing begun with the summary execution of an Amhara man called Abiy Tsegaye in front of his family. “…The group of perpetrators forced Abiy Tsegaye out of his house and had him shot in front of his family by a local militia and former colleague called Shambel Kahsay, before throwing his body into the raging fire that engulfed their house,” says the report.
- Since the conflict between Addis Ababa and Mekelle begun on 4 November, both sides have accused each other of human rights violations.
- With communication between Tigray and the world shut and access tightly controlled, news filtering out of the conflict region indicates that thousands have died in the fighting so far.
- At least 40, 000 Ethiopians have sought refuge in Eastern Sudan, in addition to tens of thousands who have been internally displaced.
The EHRC report was briefly mentioned in PM Abiy’s statement on Wednesday 25 November as mounting evidence of “crimes against humanity and war crimes” by the TPLF and its militias.
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