Ethiopian military forces are now waging a “difficult and tedious” guerrilla war in the northern Tigray region, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed admitted.
His comments mark a sharp break with the earlier insistence that the military operations launched in November had been a swift and decisive success.
“The junta that we had eliminated in three weeks has now turned into a guerrilla force, mixed with farmers and began to move from one place to another,” Abiy said, referring to the Tigray Popular Liberation Front (TPLF), the Saturday.
“Now, we cannot eliminate it in three months,” he added.
“Eliminating a visible enemy and eliminating an enemy that hides and operates by assimilating with others is not the same. It is very difficult and tedious ”.
Federal troops moved to Tigray in November with the aim of “restoring the rule of law” by overthrowing the TPLF, the then-ruling political party in the province, following surprise attacks on federal army bases.
The offensive was declared successful after the TPLF leadership evacuated its stronghold from Mekelle, the provincial capital, and an interim administration loyal to Addis Ababa was installed.
However, it has become clear that, after initial setbacks and heavy losses, the TPLF had met in late January and was waging an increasingly intense insurgency against federal forces.
A series of fierce clashes took place in mid-February around Samre, a small town 40 km southwest of Mekelle, as thousands of Ethiopian troops supported by artillery, tanks and airstrikes fought against forces loyal to the TPLF that were entrenched there. . In recent days, fighting in the area has renewed, sources in Tigray told The Guardian.
There have also been clashes in the northeast of the region, on the highway leading to Eritrea and along the main road linking Mekelle with the cities further west. Much of the rural areas remain outside the authority of the central government, and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said last week that there were “clashes and ambushes in most of the region.”
A wave of atrocities including massacres of hundreds of people by Ethiopian troops and their Eritrean allies have fueled the recruitment of TPLF forces.
Last week, The Guardian reported that nearly 2,000 people killed in more than 150 massacres perpetrated by soldiers, paramilitaries and insurgents in Tigray have been identified by name by investigators studying the conflict. The oldest victims were 90 years old and the youngest were babies.
Access restrictions for humanitarian workers, researchers and journalists have made it difficult to determine the death toll from the conflict so far, but the total number of victims is likely to be in the tens of thousands, and will likely never be known.
The International Crisis Group (ICG) warned last week that the war risks dragging on for months and even years.
Despite the deployment of Eritrean troops and militias from Ethiopia’s Amhara region, which borders Tigray to the south, most TPLF leaders continue to flee and ICG noted that none were captured or killed in February or March.
Pro-TPLF fighters have regrouped under the Tigray Defense Forces, an armed movement “led by ousted Tigrayan leaders and commanded by high-ranking former military officers,” ICG said.
Ethiopia’s military is also fighting a rebel group in the country’s Oromia region that the government has blamed for multiple massacres of civilians, including one last week that left dozens dead.
“Currently, the national defense forces and the federal forces are in a major fight on eight fronts in the north and west against enemies that are anti-farmers, anti-civil and cause conflict among Ethiopians,” Abiy said.
In Tigray, the Abiy government has previously downplayed the TPLF’s ability to wage an effective insurgency.
The 44-year-old prime minister, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for ending a conflict with Eritrea, told MPs last month that the pro-TPLF fighters were like “flour scattered by the wind.”
On Saturday, Abiy said that federal forces had “carried out extensive operations in the past three days” causing “serious damage to the enemies of the people,” and vowed that such efforts “will be strengthened and continued.”
Abiy faces mounting pressure to ensure the withdrawal of Eritrean soldiers from Tigray, and the Ethiopian Foreign Ministry said late Saturday that these troops had “started to evacuate.”
There is widespread fear among observers that the protracted conflict in Tigray could seriously destabilize Ethiopia, which was previously a linchpin of Western stability and security strategy in one of the most volatile regions of Africa.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism