NAIROBI (Reuters) – The head of the Tigray region in northern Ethiopia said government airstrikes had killed an unknown number of civilians in recent days and pledged to defend his people until that the federal authorities realize that “we cannot be subjugated by their knife”.
Week-long conflict between federal government forces and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), a powerful ethnic faction ruling the northern mountainous region, threatens to destabilize Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa at large.
At stake is the cohesion of a country of 115 million inhabitants, where conflict between different ethnic groups has killed hundreds of people since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took office in 2018.
Abiy, who won the Nobel Peace Prize last year, ordered the airstrikes and sent troops to Tigray last week after accusing forces loyal to the Tigrayan rulers of attacking a federal military base.
The government says the offensive will restore peace and order. Both sides say they are making progress but have not provided any evidence to support their claims.
Tigray President Debretsion Gebremichael, who is president of the TPLF, denied that Tigray troops launched any attacks and said they were acting in self-defense, without providing any evidence.
In a telephone interview and texting, he told Reuters civilians were injured and killed in airstrikes in the town of Adigrat and the regional capital, Mekelle.
“From the way I see it from the Prime Minister, I don’t think peace will come anytime soon, because he believes he can crush us, he thinks he can do anything by his armed forces,” Debretsion said. .
“Until he learns that he won’t make it, I don’t think there will be any peace.”
Debretsion said he couldn’t elaborate on the airstrikes. Reuters has not been able to independently verify its claims about civilian casualties or determine which side the attacks came from.
Abiy has publicly stated that the airstrikes hit weapons depots and other military installations controlled by the TPLF. Officials in his office and the army command did not immediately respond to Reuters requests for comment.
Journalists from Reuters and other news outlets were not allowed to visit the base where the government said the fighting had started.
Security sources and state media said hundreds of soldiers on both sides were killed in the fighting, but did not confirm civilian casualties.
Debretsion said talks were the only solution, but that he had had no contact with Abiy since the conflict began. He said Tigrayan fighters would not strike outside the region, including in neighboring Amhara state, where forces have mobilized to support Abiy.
Abiy comes from the Oromo ethnic group, the largest in Ethiopia, Africa’s second most populous nation. He took office in 2018 after decades of Tigray rule by the country’s multi-ethnic ruling coalition.
Debretsion was elected president of the TPLF in 2017. Previously, he held senior positions in the federal government, including deputy prime minister and minister of communications.
Tensions escalated in September when Tigray held regional elections in defiance of the federal government, which postponed voting across the country due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Tigray leaders accused Abiy of trying to illegally extend his tenure, which he denied, and argued that the central government did not have the power to prevent regional elections, which local officials said. declared won by the TPLF.
The government subsequently suspended federal funding for Tigray, saying the vote was illegal. Ethiopia’s parliament deprived Debretsion and 38 other members of immunity from prosecution on Thursday, the state news agency reported.
Debretsion said Tigray’s government did not have the resources to support its people during the crisis. Residents struggled to work, communications cut and banks closed, and large numbers of people were displaced, he said.
He said the Tigrayan leaders wrote to world leaders warning them of such a conflict and that they had a responsibility to help. He did not say which countries had been contacted and Reuters could not immediately confirm it.
“The international community must stop and organize peaceful negotiations to settle the political differences we have in this country,” Debretsion said.
The United Nations, the African Union and countries including Germany have publicly called for dialogue.
A government spokesperson said on Tuesday that mediation was only possible if military equipment in Tigrayan hands was destroyed, federal officials were released and regional leaders arrested.
(Reporting from the Nairobi press room; editing by Nick Tattersall)
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