Ethiopian national forces meet stiff resistance and face a protracted “war of attrition” in the northern region of Tigray, reveals a confidential United Nations assessment.
Although officials in the capital Addis Ababa have repeatedly claimed key cities have been secured, paramilitaries and army-deployed militias are still fighting to clear and secure the territory. Heavily armed regular troops have continued to advance towards Tigray as they rush to reach the capital, Mekelle, according to the assessment.
The UN document and more than a dozen interviews with humanitarian workers from other international organizations provide the most comprehensive description of the fighting yet and will deepen international concerns that the two-week-long conflict threatens to escalate into a long and brutal battle. , destabilizing. one of the most fragile regions in Africa.
The information has been difficult to obtain and confirm with communications cut to Tigray and banned journalists. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of people have died so far and many more have been displaced. More than 36,000 have fled to neighboring Sudan and large numbers are moving into Tigray to avoid the fighting.
Abiy Ahmed, the Ethiopian Prime Minister, said earlier last week that the Ethiopian Defense Forces (EDF) were prepared to give a “final push” to secure Mekelle and drive out the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the ruling party in the region. Last Thursday, government spokesman Redwan Hussein told reporters that national forces were “advancing and closing in on Mekelle” and that several cities had fallen.
The UN assessment, interviews and other analyzes by international aid organizations suggest that any expectation of a swift and decisive victory is optimistic, and that resistance is likely to harden as Tigray’s troops retreat into the mountains. east of Mekelle.
“Although the regional Tigray forces may have initially been pushed back by the rapid advances of the EDF, the terrain in eastern Tigray is easier to defend … and if they hold firm they have the ability to stop the advance of the EDF, “says one analysis, warning that this will then” change the dimension of the conflict from a quick move to one of attrition. “
Documents viewed by the Observer report that fighting continues in areas that Addis Ababa claims are now controlled by government forces, although its authors admit the information is difficult to verify.
“After the Fed reportedly ‘seized’ key cities such as Humera, Dansha, Shiraro, Alamata and Shire, and then pushed ahead with their advance, clashes have continued to be reported, or have subsequently flared up again in these locations.” said a reliable account source said.
The documents describe well-trained and heavily armed front-line units of the Ethiopian army that bypass major cities to avoid costly urban fighting as they rush towards Mekelle. But the militia and paramilitaries deployed in their wake are neither so well equipped nor so disciplined, making them vulnerable to counterattack.
One assessment predicted that if Ethiopian forces continue to advance, their supply lines and rear areas will become more vulnerable to guerrilla attacks and casualties will increase.
The conflict in northwestern Ethiopia is the culmination of months of mounting tensions between the TPLF and the ruling coalition in Addis Ababa. When national elections were canceled due to the pandemic, the TPLF held elections anyway, in a move that compounded tensions.
Abiy, who is Africa’s youngest leader and won the Nobel Peace Prize last year, launched his operation after accusing the TPLF of attacking a military camp and trying to seize military equipment.
The African Union said last Friday that it would send a team of mediators to Ethiopia in an attempt to resolve the dispute, but few observers see many immediate prospects for peace.
The US ambassador to Ethiopia, Michael Raynor, said that recent talks with Abiy and Debretsion Gebremichael, the hardline TPLF leader, had convinced him that there was “a strong commitment on both sides to bring the military conflict to through “.
In a statement this week, the TPLF said hardships are a part of wartime life and promised to give Ethiopian troops “hell” in their own territory.
The reports seen by the Observer they represent a complex and dynamic conflict across much of Tigray, with major fighting in the west of the region, as Ethiopian forces sought to advance towards the strategic city of Humera, and in the southwest, along the main road to Mekelle. Heavy fighting has also been reported around the city of Alamata, six miles from the border with neighboring Amhara province, which is fiercely loyal to the central government.
Ethiopian planes have launched air strikes and the Tigrayans have fired missiles at Amhara and Eritrea, which have supported the offensive to eliminate the TPLF. At least one massacre has been reported: it has been attributed to the withdrawal of the Tigrayan militia against a community considered loyal to the central government, but there is no confirmation of this.
There is concern that even if Abiy succeeds in expelling the TPLF and imposing federal authority over Tigray, the violence will continue.
Although they number just 6 million out of a total of 110 million people living in Africa’s second most populous country, the Tigrayans effectively ruled Ethiopia for decades. Until Abiy took power two years ago, they were the most powerful force in a multi-ethnic coalition. Abiy, whose parents belong to the larger ethnic groups in Oromo and Amhara, released thousands of political prisoners and vowed to end the domination of one ethnic group.
“Even if the EDF succeeds in its mission to take Mekelle,” the UN assessment warns, “this will not necessarily end the conflict. A protracted asymmetric conflict and insurgency are likely to continue. From a humanitarian perspective, the longer the conflict continues, the more serious the crisis will be. “
Ethiopia has long been a lynchpin of US policy in the fragile East Africa region, and Washington has so far supported Abiy.
Tibor Nagy, the US Under Secretary for African Affairs, told reporters last week: “This is not about two sovereign states fighting. This is a faction of the government that leads a region that has decided to launch hostilities against the central government, and it has not … had the effect that they thought it would have ”.
On Saturday, Abiy said on Twitter that the safety and well-being of the people of Tigray was of the utmost importance and that the federal government would do everything possible to “ensure that stability prevails in the Tigray region and that our citizens are free from damages and necessities “.
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