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Both sides claim big wins as Ethiopia fighting enters third week

Wednesday November 18 2020
etiopia pic

A woman carries an Ethiopian national flag in ceremonies at the prime minister's compound in Addis on Wednesday to honour the armed forces. EDUARDO SOTERAS AFP

By AFP

Addis Ababa. Both sides in Ethiopia's raging internal conflict claimed military successes on Wednesday, creating a muddied picture of fighting even as the government promised it would soon be over.

A communications blackout in the northern Tigray region, where Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has ordered military operations against the ruling party, has made it difficult to get a clear view of hostilities now entering their third week.

"We're inflicting heavy defeats on all fronts against the forces that came to attack us," Tigrayan leader Debretsion Gebremichael said in a statement, referring to federal forces.

"I call upon all the Tigrayan people to go out en masse to drive out the invaders," he added.

But army chief Berhanu Jula said in a statement of his own that Ethiopia's army was "winning on all fronts" and that the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) was "in a state of desperation."

"The TPLF's plan to drag Ethiopia into civil war and tear it apart has failed. It is currently in a desperate mode as it is surrounded," Berhanu said.

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Abiy, last year's Nobel Peace Prize winner, announced the military campaign in Tigray on November 4, saying it was in response to TPLF attacks on federal military camps.

It marked a dramatic escalation of his long-running feud with the TPLF, an organisation that dominated Ethiopian politics for nearly three decades before Abiy took office in 2018.

Tensions ramped up after Tigray held its own elections in September -- defying a nationwide ban on polls because of coronavirus -- and tried to brand Abiy an illegitimate ruler.

- Hospitals under strain -

The UN refugee agency said Tuesday that around 27,000 Ethiopians had fled across the border into Sudan -- a figure now rising by around 4,000 people each day.

A spokesman warned of "a full-blown humanitarian crisis" as the UN and aid organisations negotiated with the government to get full access to Tigray.

Hundreds of combatants are said to have died in fighting, but casualty totals so far are rough estimates. 

On Wednesday the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said the Ethiopia Red Cross Society had "transported hundreds of people injured in areas affected by clashes."

The organisation said hospitals in Tigray and neighbouring Amhara region "urgently need hospital beds, mattresses, blankets and bedsheets."

One hospital in the Amhara city of Gondar "has been receiving large numbers of critically injured patients with more than 400 treated so far in the facility," the ICRC said.

Three Ethiopia Red Cross ambulances have been attacked in "a worrying sign that medical workers and first responders are not being respected and protected", though the ICRC noted that the details of the attacks were "not clear". 

- 'Final' push -

Abiy has resisted international pressure to bring about a cessation of hostilities.

He says mediation can only happen when the TPLF is disarmed and its leaders arrested.

On Tuesday Abiy announced that "in the coming days, the final law enforcement activities will be done."

His government later claimed to be marching on the regional capital, Mekele, and to hold the town of Mehoni 125 kilometres (78 miles) to the south.

Yet fierce fighting was also reported Tuesday near Alamata, a town farther south that the government claimed to control over the weekend, raising questions as to how solid its gains were.

Clashes also took place Tuesday in the northern town of Shire, where camps house thousands of Eritrean refugees.

Federal forces say they already control Tigray's western zone, which saw heavy fighting at the start of the conflict.

The government has accused the TPLF of destroying four bridges leading into Mekele.

"The TPLF junta will be held accountable for destruction of infrastructure in addition to other crimes if has committed up to today," it said in a statement Tuesday.

In an interview with German television network DW on Tuesday, Defence Minister Kenea Yadeta said the conflict would end "probably within less than 10 to 15 days."

But diplomats say it is far from clear federal forces will be able to secure a quick victory.

The TPLF has considerable military assets and an estimated 250,000 troops fighting on mountainous terrain they know well.

Ethiopia's military is estimated at 150,000 troops, a figure that does not include special forces and militias.

There are fears the conflict could spread beyond Tigray.

Thousands of militiamen from the Amhara region south of Tigray have deployed to the two regions' shared border, and TPLF forces last week fired rockets at two airports in Amhara.

The following evening they launched rocket strikes on the airport in the Eritrean capital Asmara.

The TPLF accuses Ethiopia of enlisting Eritrean soldiers in the conflict, something Ethiopia denies.

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