Civilian casualties to mount as the battle for Mekelle begins in Ethiopia’s northern region

The military conflict between Ethiopia’s federal government and the Tigray regional government, which began on November 4, has already claimed thousands of lives. International agencies have raised concerns over shortages of food and medicine.

November 28, 2020 by Pavan Kulkarni
Tigray refugees on the banks of the Tekeze River on the border of Ethiopia with Sudan. Human rights organizations estimate that the conflict in the region has already forced thousands to flee. Photo: Narimal El-Mofty

On Saturday, November 28, the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) began heavy shelling on Mekelle, the capital city of Tigray region in the country’s north, populated by half a million people.

Now in its fourth week, the military conflict in this region, between the troops of the federal government and of the rebelling regional state government ruled by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), is already estimated to have killed thousands.

The TPLF has called on “the international community to condemn the artillery and warplane attacks and massacres being committed”.

Prior to the shelling on Mekelle, the ENDF on Friday claimed to have taken control of several strategically important towns around this city, including Hawzen, al-Najashi, Adikeyeh, Maimesanon, Hewane and Wukro.

They were seized as a part of the “final phase” of the military offensive in the region, aimed at taking Mekelle. It was in this city that the Northern Command, ENDF’s largest regional military command, was attacked and seized by the forces of TPLF on November 4, triggering the armed conflict.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced the final push aimed at Mekelle on Thursday, a day after the 72-hours deadline he had given the TPLF to surrender expired.

The Tigrayan forces are “ready to die in defense of our right to administer our region”, Debretsion Gebremichael, TPLF’s head and the president of the regional state government maintains.

Guerilla warfare

According to unnamed diplomatic sources quoted by Reuters, the TPLF has “mobilized lots of people in Mekelle. They are digging trenches and everyone has an AK-47.”

Civilian support for the TPLF appears to be significant. In the election that was held in Tigray in September, in defiance of the federal government’s decision to postpone elections in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the TPLF was re-elected with a large majority.

Analysts have pointed out that even if Mekelle is taken by the federal forces, the TPLF is in a position to engage in prolonged guerilla warfare, which suits the mountainous terrain.

TPLF had been the most dominant force in the country’s ruling coalition since the 1990s, until it was marginalized into a regional power following the ascent of Abiy Ahmed as a reformist Prime Minister in the backdrop of 2018 anti-government protests.

However, having been on the frontlines of the 1998-2000 war with Eritrea and having played a lead role in the campaign which brought down Mengistu’s military dictatorship in 1991, the TPLF remains militarily powerful.

Including the state government’s security personnel and the ethnically organized Tigrayan militias, its forces are estimated to number up to 250,000.

This is higher than estimated 140,000 personnels in the ENDF, but the federal troops have the support of the militias controlled by the state government of the Amhara region, which flanks Tigray on the South.

The federal forces also have a monopoly over air-power. Military jets have been repeatedly used in the conflict to strike TPLF targets. A large number of tanks have also been deployed.

“From now on, the fighting will be a tank battle,” ENDF spokesperson, Col. Dejene Tsegaye, had said on the night of November 21, before the PM gave the TPLF three days to surrender.

War Crimes

“Our people in Mekelle should be notified that they should protect themselves from heavy artillery,” he added, warning that “no mercy” will be shown to the residents who do not “steer away” from the TPLF leadership to “save themselves” before the attack on Mekelle.

The Horn of Africa director of Human Rights Watch, Laetitia Bader, has warned that “treating a whole city as a military target would not only be unlawful, it could also be considered a form of collective punishment,” which could amount to war crimes as per Geneva Conventions.

The region is already suffering from shortages of food and other essentials. “Hospitals and primary health-care facilities in northern Ethiopia, in and around areas that have seen intense fighting, are in urgent need of medical supplies,” Red Cross has warned. The UN has demanded access to a humanitarian corridor. However, the region remains cut off.

On Thursday, when the “final phase” was announced, Finance Minister Ahmed Shide told France 24, “We have made the people of Mekelle to be aware of the operation by deploying military helicopters and dropping pamphlets in Tigrinya and also in Amharic so that they protect themselves against this.”

However, HRW maintains that “warnings alone do not absolve the government of its obligation to take constant care to protect civilians, particularly when using airpower and heavy weaponry in urban areas where thousands of people reside who may not be able to flee to more secure areas.”

Human toll of the conflict

In the three weeks since the conflict began, UNHCR estimates that 43,000 people have fled across the western border into Sudan. The highest refugee flow was recorded on November 10, when 6,800 people crossed over, following the massacre of hundreds in the border town of Maikadra on November 9.

Victims who spoke to Amnesty International pointed fingers at the TPLF. According to a report of the preliminary findings by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) released on November 24, the victims were people of non-Tigrayan ethnicity.

Federal government-controlled Ethiopian News Agency (ENA) reported that according to EHRC, the massacre was carried out by a Tigrayan youth group called “Samri”, with the backing of militias and police forces loyal to the TPLF, before retreating from the advancing ENDF forces.

The average number of refugees crossing into Sudan was estimated to be 3,000 a day, but has since reduced to 700 after the deployment of federal troops along the crossing points on the border to stop the refugees. This has raised concerns over the plight of those who are unable to flee to safety as fighting intensifies.

Conflict spilling over the borders

Sealing this western border is a critical military objective for the federal troops to prevent the TPLF from retreating and regrouping in the remote region of eastern Sudan. Eritrea lies on Tigray’s northern border. The country had negotiated a peace deal in 2018 with the federal government under Abiy Ahmed, against the will of the TPLF which continues to regard Eritrea as an enemy.

Eritrean territory has been repeatedly used by federal troops to retreat and regroup. Reports also indicate that wounded federal troops are being treated in Eritrean hospitals. The TPLF launched rockets targeting Eritrean capital Asmara on November 15, accusing Eritrea of also sending its soldiers to support the Ethiopian federal troops’ military operations in Tigray. Eritrea denies this allegation.

On Friday night, according to unnamed diplomatic sources quoted by AP, at least “one rocket coming from Tigray.. seems to have landed south of Asmara.” According to an unverified claim by another diplomat, another rocket landed inside Asmara, although no casualties have been reported.