Most rebel commanders are ‘dead or captured’, says federal army in claims disputed by TPLF leaders
Ethiopia said it had captured or killed most commanders of a rebellious northern force, while Tigray’s fugitive local leader countered yesterday that civilians were protesting against looting by occupying soldiers.
Neither side gave proof for their assertions about the month-long war in the mountainous region bordering Eritrea where phone communications have been down and access severely restricted.
Fighting between Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s federal army and forces loyal to the region’s former ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), erupted on November 4.
Thousands of people are believed to have died while more than 45,000 refugees crossed to Sudan.
TPLF leaders, who enjoy strong popular support in Tigray, appear to have fled to surrounding mountains and say they have begun a guerrilla-style resistance.
TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael told Reuters in a text message that there were protests in Mekelle, which is home to 500,000 people, due to looting by Eritrean soldiers.
“Eritrean soldiers are everywhere,” he said, repeating an accusation that President Isaias Afwerki has sent soldiers over the border to back Mr Abiy. Both Ethiopia and Eritrea have denied that.
Ethiopia says the TPLF wants to internationalise the conflict as a way to force the government, which appears to hold all the major towns, into international mediation.
Mr Debretsion (57), a former guerrilla radio operator, gave no evidence of looting or the presence of Eritreans.
On Wednesday, state TV showed images of people shopping in Mekelle city. But there have been no images of security forces interacting with residents.
Mr Abiy’s spokeswoman Billene Seyoum said she would not comment on unverifiable text messages.
A senior military commander, General Tesfaye Ayalew, said “almost all of the enemy”, including former federal colonels and generals who fought on the Tigrayan side, were defeated or dead. “But the ones who made the plans and the criminals are still on the run and hiding,” he told state-affiliated Fana TV.
Relief agencies are extremely worried about lack of food, fuel, medicines and even body bags in Tigray. Convoys are on stand-by to take aid in.
The United Nations sounded the alarm about fighting and deaths – including of aid workers, sources told Reuters – around camps for Eritrean refugees.
Mulu Nega, appointed by Mr Abiy as chief executive of a new provisional administration of Tigray, said the government was channelling help to parts of Tigray under its control. “Our priority in the region now is to restore peace,” he told Fana TV.
In Sudan, refugees recounted stories of fleeing Tigray along roads strewn with bodies and also spoke of Eritrean involvement. A surgeon from the border town of Humera said shells had come from the Eritrean side over the Tekeze River in the early days of battles.
Mr Abiy took office in 2018 after nearly three decades of TPLF-led government.
The TPLF accuses Mr Abiy of trying to increase personal power over Ethiopia’s 10 regions. Mr Abiy denies this.