Ethiopian federal government announces final offensive against Tigray regional forces

Around 27,000 people are estimated to have fled from Ethiopia’s Tigray region across the western border into Sudan. The UN refugee agency in Sudan estimated that an average of 4,000 refugees have been arriving daily

November 18, 2020 by Pavan Kulkarni
Ethiopia Tigray conflict
(Photo: Ethiopian News Agency)

On November 17, Tuesday, Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed declared a “final and crucial” military offensive in the coming days to disarm and dislodge the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) from the regional government of Tigray, in the country’s north. 

The announcement by the PM via a social media post came on the same day that the federal government’s three-day notice for the TPLF to surrender expired.

The central target of the military operation is the Tigray regional State capital, the city of Mekelle, where forces loyal to the TPLF attacked and seized control of the heavily armed Northern Command of Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) on November 4.  

Areas in and around Mekelle were subjected to airstrikes by the Ethiopian air force on Monday, according to military and diplomatic sources cited by Reuters. TPLF’s head and the president of the Tigray’s regional government, Debretsion Gebremichael, has claimed that these attacks injured several civilians and killed at least two. 

Tigray TV showed footage of residential areas supposedly damaged from the bombing. The representative of the United Nations (UN) refugee agency in Ethiopia, Ann Encontre, also told Al Jazeera that her colleagues posted in Mekelle had witnessed “an airstrike”.

The federal government has refuted these claims. According to the task force appointed to oversee the operation to restore its authority in the region, these were “precision led and surgical air operations outside Mekelle city, based on information received of specific critical TPLF targets.”

Reporters are unable to independently verify the contradictory claims because access to the Tigray region, as well as internet and telecommunication there has been cut off in most parts. 

The task force also claimed that the federal government’s troops had wrested control over the town of Alamata, around 180 kilometers from Mekelle. According to its statement, the TPLF’s troops have “fled, taking along around 10,000 prisoners.”  

This town of 50,000 residents is located on the south-eastern tip of Tigray, only around 9.5 kilometers away from the border with Amahara, whose regional government’s militias are supporting the federal troops against the Tigrayan forces.

Calling on the UN and the African Union to condemn the attack, Debretsion accused the federal government of using hi-tech weaponry, including drones, to attack.

He said in a statement that “Abiy Ahmed is waging this war on the people of Tigray and he is responsible for the purposeful infliction of human suffering on the people and destruction of major infrastructure projects like the Tekeze Dam and the Wolkait Sugar Factory by air strikes.”

While not commenting about the damage to the sugar factory, the federal government has disputed the allegation regarding the attack on Tekeze dam, following which there were power cuts in the surrounding areas. It is one of the tallest dams in Africa standing on a tributary of the Nile, capable of generating 300 megawatts of electricity.

Citing Moges Mekonen, the communication director of Ethiopian Electric Power (EEP), the state-owned Ethiopian News Agency (ENA) reported that it was the TPLF’s forces which had attacked the police on guard-duty at the dam and damaged the power-generation switch.

According to an ENA report, there is “no more damage apart from their own attack on the power transition switch” and the 9.3 billion cubic liters of water in the dam is “well functioning with its natural flow”.  

Debretsion claimed on Tuesday that the fighting was still ongoing around the town of Amalata. “We will retaliate while they are here, and strike the airports from which they launched attacks. There is no place that we can’t reach and we will continue to attack selected targets that the invading forces are using against us,” according to his statement.

Areas around the airports in the cities of Bahir Dar & Gondar in the Amhara regional State have sustained damage from the rockets fired on Friday evening by the TPLF, which insists that it will continue with the offensive “unless the attacks against us stop.” 

The federal government, on the other had, is set to march its troops to Mekelle, after claiming on Tuesday to have “liberated” the localities of Raya, Chercher, Gugufto and Mehoni on the eastern border with Tigray, and Shire near the western front.

Increased internal pressure to negotiate a peaceful resolution

Amidst this escalating war, around 27,000 people are estimated to have fled from the Tigray region across the western border into Sudan, mostly into the States of Gedaref and Kassala. The UN refugee agency in Sudan estimated that an average of 4,000 people have been arriving as refugees in Sudan daily since the conflict started.

Already hosting a million refugees from other conflict-affected countries in the region, Sudan, which is itself going through a major economic crisis, is complaining of food shortages. Suleiman Musa, the governor of Gedaref State, has criticized the slow response from the UNHRC, which is overwhelmed by the pace of the exodus. The agency has warned that “a full-scale humanitarian crisis is unfolding.”

The federal government maintains that the atrocities committed by the Tigrayan forces, particularly on the people of non-Tigrayan ethnicity in the region, is an important factor behind the exodus.

A certain credibility is lent to this accusation against the TPLF after Amnesty International confirmed on November 12 that “scores, and likely hundreds, of people were stabbed or hacked to death in Mai-Kadra town in the South West Zone of Ethiopia’s Tigray Region on the night of 9 November.”

The victims of this massacre “appear to have been day laborers in no way involved in the ongoing military offensive,” its report said.

“Amnesty International has not yet been able to confirm who was responsible for the killings, but has spoken to witnesses who said forces loyal to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) were responsible for the mass killings, apparently after they suffered defeat from the federal EDF forces,” as per the report.

“If confirmed as having been deliberately carried out by a party to the current fighting, these killings of civilians would of course amount to war crimes,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said. “I strongly urge both sides to realize that there will be no winner in such a situation and begin a serious dialogue to resolve their differences without delay.”

Along with the UN and the African Union, a number of other countries in the region are calling on the two parties to negotiate a peaceful settlement, fearing a broader regional destabilization as a result of this conflict. 

According to Redwan Hussein, the spokesperson of the task force overseeing the efforts on the federal government’s side, Ethiopia has sent a delegation to the surrounding countries to convey the PM’s message asking for time and promising that the operation would be “short-lived”.

While indicating that negotiation with the Tigrayan people was inevitable, he added that the TPLF’s leaders must first be removed from power and its forces disarmed before such negotiations could start.

“If this government would sit down and actually negotiate with (the TPLF).. then it has to sit down in every other part of the country, whenever someone has access to a rocket and a missile and threatens the headquarter of the country,” he said. “It would simply incentivise ungovernability in any nation.”