A war between Ethiopia’s federal government and the country’s restive Tigray region has escalated dramatically in the second week of the conflict amid reports that thousands have fled the region and scores of civilians have been massacred, rights groups say.
Around 11,000 people have crossed into Sudan as the conflict intensifies, a UN refugee official said on Thursday – stoking fears of a humanitarian crisis.
Amnesty International reported that “likely hundreds” of civilians were stabbed or hacked to death on Monday, though they have been unable to confirm who was responsible.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent troops to the restive region last week, where tensions have been building for months, after the former ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), crossed the “last red line” by attempting to steal military equipment from a government base in the region, he alleged.
Telephone and internet services have been restricted in the north, while the TPLF accused the government of sending fighter jets to bomb locations around the regional capital of Mekele.
A lengthy civil war between the two sides could drag one of Africa’s most populous countries into chaos and threaten the stability of the wider region, analysts say.
“Unless urgently halted, the ongoing armed confrontation between Ethiopia’s federal forces and those commanded by the northern Tigray region’s leadership will be devastating not just for the country but for the entire Horn of Africa,” said the International Crisis Group in its latest briefing.
The TPLF has been at loggerheads with Ethiopia’s federal government since Abiy came to power in 2018 and unseated a ruling clique that had governed since the 1990s, despite making up around 7% of the population.
Though Abiy won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for ending decades of low-level conflict with Eritrea, ethnic unrest and instability has increased under his watch.
At least 54 mostly women and children belonging to the Amhara ethnic group were killed recently by suspected militants belonging to Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, the Oromo, according to Amnesty International.
Ethiopia has nine ethno-linguistic regions, each with its own council and militia.
Tigrayan opposition figures have decried Abiy’s centralised vision for the country as they say it undermines ethnic traditions and the right to self-governance.
The TPLF held regional elections in September in defiance of the government which had postponed the national and regional vote until after Covid-19.
Addis Ababa responded by cutting funding to the region, but refrained from a military response to avoid disrupting the production that comes out of the region’s industrial hub.
The TPLF held military parades and warned that intervention by the government would amount to a “declaration of war.”
Along with growing unrest in Ethiopia’s Oromo region, the threat of war casts further doubt on the prime minister’s ability to carry out planned economic reforms like liberalising the banking and telecoms sectors.
The UN secretary-general António Guterres called for “an immediate de-escalation of tensions and a peaceful resolution of the dispute” on Friday.