International pressure mounted today on the warring parties in northern Ethiopia to cease fighting and protect civilians in Tigray, whose leaders Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has given a deadline to surrender.

Forces loyal to Tigray’s ruling party have been battling Ethiopian soldiers for nearly three weeks, sparking a refugee exodus, civilian deaths and fears of broader instability in the Horn of Africa.

Ethiopian refugees fleeing from the ongoing fighting in Tigray region, queue for water, at the Fashaga camp, on the Sudan-Ethiopia border, in Kassala state, Sudan, on November 24, 2020. Photo: Reuters

Abiy, last year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, ordered troops, tanks and warplanes into Tigray on November 4 in response to an alleged attack on federal military camps by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. The army says it has encircled Mekele, the regional capital, ahead of a threatened all-out assault.

The prime minister, who has resisted calls for mediation and insists the conflict has reached a decisive final stage, on Sunday gave the TPLF 72 hours to surrender — an ultimatum rejected by the dissident region’s leader, who says his people are “ready to die” for the homeland.

The prospect of a devastating bombardment of Mekele, a city of half a million people and a refuge for many more fleeing the conflict, has alarmed rights groups who warn such an attack on a civilian centre could contravene international law.

“As Ethiopian federal troops begin preparations to encircle Mekele, Amnesty International reminds all parties that deliberately attacking civilians and civilian objects is prohibited under international humanitarian law, and constitutes war crimes,” said Deprose Muchena, head of Amnesty International’s east and southern Africa office. “Indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks are also prohibited.”

Amnesty appealed to both sides of the conflict not to use heavy artillery in crowded areas, and not to use human shields or place military camps near civilian sites that could be targeted.

The 55-member African Union, headquartered in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, has dispatched three former African presidents as special envoys to try and broker talks on the Tigray crisis, joining an international chorus calling for an urgent resolution.

But yesterday a spokesman for an Ethiopian committee handling the conflict, Redwan Hussein, again ruled out negotiations with the TPLF but said the government would meet the AU envoys “as a matter of respect”.

The US National Security Council yesterday called for mediation and extended its support to Ramaphosa and the AU diplomatic effort “to end this tragic conflict now”.

France also condemned the violence, with foreign ministry spokeswoman Agnes von der Muhll calling for urgent measures to protect civilians.

The fighting has already driven more than 40,000 people into Sudan and reportedly killed hundreds and forced many more to flee within Tigray, though the true extent of death and displacement is not yet known. A communications blackout and restrictions on reporting in the region have made claims from both sides difficult to verify.

The TPLF yesterday said it routed an army battalion and claimed responsibility for a rocket attack on Bahir Dar, the capital of Amhara region to the south of Tigray, whose local forces are fighting alongside Ethiopian troops.

The government said today that “a large number of Tigray militia and special forces are surrendering” following the issuance of Abiy’s 72-hour ultimatum.

Long-running tensions between Addis Ababa and the TPLF boiled over in September when Tigray proceeded with regional elections in defiance of the federal government, which declared the vote illegal.



A version of this article appears in print on November 25, 2020 of The Himalayan Times.

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