On December 23, Ethiopian government’s Minister of Communication Service, Legesse Tulu, announced that all parts of eastern Amhara and the entire Afar state have been liberated from the occupation of the US-backed Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
The TPLF, which started the civil war in November 2020 by attacking a federal army base in Tigray state’s capital city Mekelle, had invaded these two neighboring states after the federal government’s unilateral ceasefire on June 29.
Advancing rapidly with the use of conscripted Tigrayans – including child soldiers – as human waves, the TPLF had by November reached within 200 km of Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa, after capturing several strategically located cities and towns in Amhara’s Wollo region.
To the east of this region, in the state of Afar, the TPLF had advanced south all the way to Chifra, only 50 km from Mille district in which it intended to siege the critical highway connecting land-locked Ethiopia’s capital to the port in neighboring Djibouti.
By then, however, the TPLF’s conscripted forces, which had suffered major loss of lives, had overstretched from their base in Tigray, into a region where its atrocities on civilians had mobilized the local population against it.
Recapturing town after town from the TPLF with the support of Amharan and Afar militias, the federal army, led by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, has now taken control of the Amharan town of Abergele, only 60 km to the southwest of Mekele, Elias Amare, editor of Horn of Africa TV, told Peoples Dispatch on December 24.
This town, he said, “is not far from the Tekeze river, crossing which will bring them to the Tembien region of Tigray”, which the TPLF, during an earlier retreat from Mekele last year, had used as a hideout for its troops. The taking of Tembein region “would be game over”, with remnants of TPLF having “nowhere to hide”.
The federal forces are also in a position to attack Mekele from only 50 km southeast, having secured on December 23 the town of Abaala in Afar state along the border with Tigray, Amare added.
Federal army will not pursue TPLF into Tigray
Legesse Tulu maintains, however, that the Ethiopian army will hold the positions they have secured and to not pursue the TPLF into Tigray-proper.
Tigray-proper, it is to be noted, does not include the western Amhara region of Welkait and Humera along Sudan’s border. It had only come to be referred to as western Tigray after it was annexed into Tigray by the TPLF in 1991, at the start of its 27-year long dictatorial rule over Ethiopia.
Welkait and Humera was retaken from the TPLF by a joint force of federal army and Amharan militias in the course of this civil war – started by the TPLF two years after mass pro-democracy protests in 2018 reduced it from being Ethiopia’s dominant party to a regional state power limited to Tigray.
Tulu said in his press address that developments in this critical strip of land between the TPLF’s encircled forces in Tigray and Sudan, which is alleged to be supporting the TPLF, will be announced by the government in the due course.
“I’m hearing from credible sources that TPLF forces from Eastern Sudan refugee camps have attempted an attack on the Humera front but were repulsed. The TPLF is also preparing for yet another campaign to break through this Welkait front to open a corridor, a lifeline to supply routes, to Sudan,” Amare said, describing the situation here as “very fluid”.
Guarding this corridor is a critical military objective to ensure that the TPLF does not find an escape route into a safe haven to which it can retreat, regroup and launch attacks again. While the government remains committed to defending this corridor, Tulu gave reasons for its reluctance to pursue the TPLF into the borders of Tigray-proper.
The TPLF, he claimed, has transported into Tigray thousands of bodies of its fighters killed in combat in Amhara and Afar to bury them in mass graves. The government is concerned that these bodies can be misused as evidence of atrocities by the government forces, should it enter the Tigray region currently controlled by the TPLF.
These concerns are of a serious nature because the US, which is accused of being the main force driving the war from behind the TPLF, has for long been trying to pin the charge of genocide on the Ethiopian government.
An earlier joint-investigation by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) found no evidence of genocide. In response, the US and its European allies mobilized votes in the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) for a resolution to launch a new investigation.
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‘Ethiopian government won’t sit for negotiation with TPLF’
In the meantime, cloaking its military defeat as a “bold act of withdrawal” from Amhara and Afar, TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael has sought a “decisive opening for peace” in a letter to the UN General Secretary, António Guterres, on Monday, December 20.
Ethiopia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesperson, Ambassador Dina Mufti clarified in a press conference on December 23 that “TPLF is a designated terrorist organization by the House of Peoples’ Representatives and the Ethiopian government won’t sit for negotiation with this organization. The parliament has to see all legal frames when it comes to TPLF.”
The government has called for the disarmament of TPLF and a surrender of its leadership, following which a “national dialogue” can be held among the citizens “to discuss, debate and resolve the political issues, so that the nation can move forward”, Amare said.
However, it is unlikely that the TPLF’s leadership will accede to these terms, given the grave nature of charges it will have to face after surrendering. Massacres of hundreds, burials in mass-graves, gang-rapes and other atrocities, including sysematic looting and destruction of medical facilities, are being documented in towns after towns that have been liberated from TPLF’s occupation over the last weeks.
TPLF’s campaign of atrocities on civilians
In one such case, residents of Raya Kobo town alleged that 120 civilians were killed by the TPLF using sniper-fire and claimed that they can show the mass-graves where the victims are buried. Residents also alleged that several women, including a pregnant mother, were raped.
Raya Kobo was liberated on December 18, along with the critical town of Woldia, located on the highway connecting Mekelle to Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa. Residents of Woldiya have alleged that the TPLF had “killed many young people in public, raped women in groups, looted property every day.”
Barely 10 kilometers from Woldiya, in the Gobeye town, health workers reported to have been forcefully prevented from treating patients. As a result, many child-births during this period did not receive medical supervision, and resulted in deaths. Not being able to receive treatment, many HIV patients are also reported to have died.
Similar atrocities have also been documented in the testimonies of eyewitnesses, survivors and health workers in other Amharan towns and cities liberated this month, including Shewa Robit, Debre Sina, Ataye, Kemissie, Kombolcha, Dessie, Haik, Wuchalen, and Wurgehsa.
Asnaku Dires, head of Amhara state’s office of Women, Children and Social Affairs, said on Thursday that premlimary reports indicate that at least 147 women and 17 children had been raped by TPLF’s forces in the region.
TPLF has also been accused of deliberately destroying means of production and livelihood. In the industrial center of Kombolcha, nearly 80% of all factories and businesses were destroyed by the TPLF, Amare said in an earlier interview. Hotels, universities, and hospitals were also targeted systematically in Dessie.
On his visit to Dessie Tissue Culture Center which was also destroyed, Foreign Affairs Demeke Mekonnon said: “Tissue culture is a.. very important technology.. that will help to modernize.. the agriculture sector of Ethiopia. The group had deliberately destroyed the center with a view to prolong poverty by depriving the nation from the use of such technologies. A lot of efforts had been exerted to realize this key center.”
No-Fly zone over Tigray?
Leaving behind this trail of destruction, displacing over a million civilians in Amhara and tens of thousands in Afar, the TPLF, on retreating back into Tigray after military defeats in neighboring states, has sought the protection from the UN, which is facing several allegations of partiality towards the TPLF in this conflict.
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In his letter to Guterres on December 20, Gebremichael appealed to the “international community” to force the Ethiopian government into negotiation. He also called on the imposition of arms embargo on Ethiopia as well as Eritrea. Eritrea, knowing the 2018 peace deal would break should the TPLF triumph, has been supporting the Ethiopian government in the civil war.
“Tigray is not a sovereign state with membership in the UN. TPLF’s call for an arms embargo on Ethiopia has no standing in international law,” Amare maintains.
Gebremichael further urged the imposition of a no-fly zone over Tigray, which – as the experience, for instance, of Libya in 2011 shows – is not a mere defensive measure against airstrikes.
However, Amare remains confident that a no-fly zone resolution will not pass through the UN Security Council. “It was different in 2011,” he said. “China and Russia were caught off-guard. And the resolution that did pass through the Security Council itself did not require a no-fly zone; it was the interpretation of the resolution that made the way. China and Russia have lived to regret that.”
Lessons have since been learnt, he maintains. “This time around, in the past year, for more than 12 times the issue of conflict in Tigray was brought to the UN, with the specific purpose of finding some kind of wiggle-room to impose such resolutions. But each time, these attempts were rebuffed by Russia, China, India, and other African countries.”