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Ethiopia’s Tigray conflict: warring sides fight to give their own version of events

Avatar: Hagos Gebreamlak
Hagos GebreamlakJuly 5, 2021
HAQCHECKAnalysis
Ethiopia’s Tigray conflict: warring sides fight to give their own version of events

War broke out in Ethiopia’s Tigray region in November 2020 between the federal government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF)-led armed forces.

The federal government started an offensive against TPLF-loyal forces after they launched an “anticipatory” surprising attack on the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) northern command military bases. 

The Ethiopian government has said that the military operation is a “law enforcement” campaign to bring perpetrators to justice and is committing efforts to respond to humanitarian needs.

The federal government-led forces took control of major areas including Mekelle, the regional capital of Tigray, on November 28. The federal-led forces then declared victory over the TPLF. Skirmishes continued beyond urban centers and the federal government captured and killed senior military and civil officers of the TPLF-led forces.

However, fighting had persisted in Tigray. Continued hostilities unleashed security and humanitarian crises.

As the crisis in the region deepened, the international community began pressuring the Ethiopian government to take action to improve the humanitarian and security situation of the regional state. The UN Security Council, the US, and European governments have registered their deep concern regarding the armed conflict and have called for a cessation of hostilities and peaceful resolution.

Governments and international organizations imposed sanctions on the Ethiopian government for allegedly failing to improve the humanitarian and security conditions. The European Union in mid-December 2020 has decided to conditionally delay a decision on a potential 90 million euro budget support payment to the Ethiopian government before the end of 2020.

The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) held sessions to discuss ways out of the crisis. The Council released ‘statements of deep concern’ about the humanitarian and security crisis in Tigray.

On May 24, 2021, the US Department of State handed down a visa restriction policy on four parties stated to have allegedly conducted wrongful violence and abuses and hindered access to humanitarian assistance to the Tigray region. The sanction levies restrictions on visa issuance for any current or former Ethiopian or Eritrean government officials, members of the security forces, Amhara regional forces, and members of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).

In response, on 24 May 2021, the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) issued a statement expressing its disappointment with the US State Department's decision to impose a visa restriction. Addis Ababa warned that if the US government continued to interfere and meddle in Ethiopia’s internal affairs, the country would be obliged to reassess its relations with the US which might have implications beyond the two countries’ bilateral relationship.

The G7 members recently called for unimpeded access for aid workers to Ethiopia's Tigray region. They also called for an immediate cessation of hostilities, immediate withdrawal of Eritrean forces from the Ethiopian borders, and a peaceful solution to the armed conflict.

Early this week the Ethiopian government, following a request from the Tigray Interim Administration, declared a sudden unilateral ceasefire for “humanitarian purposes” and immediately withdrew its forces from the mainlands of the regional state.

After federal forces left the region, the TPLF-forces, rebranded themselves as Tigray Defense Forces (TDF), took control of urban centers of the regional state.

This was amid the sixth Ethiopian general election which took the attention of the public and media outlets.  In effect, the post-election process was significantly forgotten by the media and people’s minds.

The Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed (Ph.D.), gave a speech this week regarding the situation in Tigray and why his forces withdrew from the region.

The PM said that he left the region partly due to pressures and sanctions. He told journalists that bank accounts belonging to the Ethiopian government have been frozen in the US and Germany.

Abiy stated that the region and its capital, Mekelle, is no longer the center of gravity for conflicts, clarifying that the rebel forces are no more militarily and economically a threat to the federal government, reinstating a non-existent threat.

The TPLF-led forces spokesman Getachew Reda refused the Prime Minister’s claim calling it a “lie” and stated that the Ethiopian federal army lost fresh fittings and was forced to leave Tigray.

The Eritrean troops who were camped in the Ethiopian borders also withdrew.

The unilateral truce and withdrawal of forces from the region were welcomed by the international community including the European Union, United Kingdom, and the US. They urged all parties to adopt the ceasefire initiative and make similar announcements. 

The US State Department said in a statement that the unilateral ceasefire could be a positive step if it brought about conditions to end the conflict, stop atrocities, and allow unhindered humanitarian aid. The statement called on all parties of the armed conflict to commit to the ceasefire proposal.

The UN said that the impact of the ceasefire remained unclear.

The TPLF-forces have rejected the call for a ceasefire and threatened to advance to the Amhara regional state and Eritrea if it was necessary to weaken enemy forces and “degrade enemy fighting capabilities”.

The Amhara ruling party, Prosperity Party, issued a statement warning TPLF forces against attempts to retake Welkait Tsegede, Tselemti, and Raya and stated that they will pay a price to defend the territories.

The Eritrean Minister of Information, Yemane Gebremeskel, responding to the statement by the TPLF spokesperson, stated on Twitter that the TPLF has failed to learn from its “military debacles” during the Ethio-Eritrean war, following the no war-no-peace situation, and the recent armed clash.

The refusal of the armistice proposal and threat to enter the Amhara region and Eritrea by the TPLF left the hope for negotiation and peace in the dark.

Communications such as phone lines and internet service and electric power supplies have been stopped in the region. United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA),  a UN body formed to address emergency and humanitarian needs,  fuel and cash shortages are unfolding in the region, inflaming the existing dire humanitarian situation.

On July 1, 2021, the bridge that connects over the Tekeze river was blown up, further aggravating humanitarian conditions as it was a vital entry point from Gonder and Sudan to North-Western and Central TigrayPrime Minister Abiy stated that huge costs and popular resistance are among the reasons for the ceasefire and army withdrawal. He said that his administration incurred more than 100 billion Birr apart from military operation costs. He said the government needed to emphasize other national priorities. The Ethiopian army withdrew to the neighboring Amhara and Afar regions. Prime Minister Abiy said that they were giving the Tigray people meditation time” to think if it benefits from the TPLF.

The Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) and the ENDF gave a joint press briefing on June 30, 2021. MoFA’s state minister Redwan Hussien explained during the briefing that his government had declared a ceasefire and had withdrawn forces to address the major concerns of the international community. The spokesperson said that the Ethiopian army can retake the regional capital within three weeks if needed.

Getachew Reda vowed that TPLF forces will not stop its offensive until they “control” all Tigrayan territories referring to western, northwestern, and southern Tigray which are now under the control of the Amhara regional forces. This may invoke a fresh military skirmish on these contested territories. Resumption of fighting is more likely in the western Tigray areas which could be the only choice for the TPLF for outlets via the Port of Sudan.

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A PIECE BYHagos Gebreamlak

Hagos has a BA degree in Political Science and International Relations from Addis Ababa University. He worked for Addis Fortune (Independent News & Media Plc) as a reporter. Hagos is currently working as a fact-checker at Addis Zeybe.