ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) – Ethiopia’s Amhara region said on Wednesday it will go on the offensive against forces from the neighbouring Tigray region, as advancing Tigrayans bear down on Amhara-held territory, potentially opening a major new phase in Ethiopia’s civil war.
The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which has recaptured most of its home region in the past three weeks after an abrupt reversal in an eight month war, has vowed to retake western Tigray, an expanse of fertile territory controlled by Amhara forces who seized it during the conflict.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who abruptly pulled central government troops out of most of Tigray last month, said on Tuesday he was still determined to repel any TPLF threat. That marked a shift in rhetoric from Abiy, who had previously emphasised a unilateral ceasefire that the TPLF mocked as “a joke” designed to justify his forces’ retreat.
A spokesman for the Amhara regional government said the authorities there were rallying their own forces for a counter-attack against Tigrayans.
“The regional government has now transitioned from defensive to an offensive,” Amhara spokesperson Gizachew Muluneh was quoted as saying by the region’s state-run Amhara Media Corporation. “Amhara militia and special forces have been systematically trying to defend but now our patience has run out and as of today we have opened an offensive attack.”
He did not respond to requests for further comment. On Tuesday the National Movement of Amhara, a major regional political party, called on irregular volunteer militia – known as Fano – to mobilise.
Western Tigray has long been home to large populations of both Tigrayans and Amahara, and renewed fighting between two of Ethiopia’s biggest ethnic groups over the territory could drive another wave of refugees from a conflict that has already forced 2 million from their homes.
When Abiy sent troops to fight the TPLF last year, Amhara militia fought on the central government’s side, using the opportunity to take control of a swathe of territory administered for decades by Tigrayans.
Since Abiy’s abrupt withdrawal on June 28, the TPLF has pushed steadily outwards, recapturing most of Tigray. Its forces retook Alamata, the main town in the south, on Monday and pushed across the deep ravine of the Tekeze River to take Mai Tsebri from Amhara control on Tuesday.
But a tougher fight could loom for western Tigray, which the Amhara consider a reclaimed part of their own historic homeland and have vowed to occupy permanently.
ABIY STEPS BACK FROM CEASEFIRE
Abiy’s more forceful remarks in a statement on Tuesday suggested his government was abandoning its three-week-old emphasis on its ceasefire declaration, proclaimed as government troops abandoned regional capital Mekelle to the advancing TPLF.
“The ceasefire could not bear the desired fruits,” he said. “The TPLF…poses a great danger to the sovereignty of the country. The federal government, through mobilising the people of Ethiopia, is determined to curb this threat.”
He blamed the TPLF for choosing to fight rather than allow in aid or observe the ceasefire, and accused them of recruiting and deploying child soldiers.
TPLF spokesman Getachew Reda did not immediately answer calls from Reuters to comment on Abiy’s accusations. He has previously said the TPLF welcome aid, and would not observe a ceasefire while parts of Tigray remained under control of the central government or its allies.
The TPLF has mocked the government’s unilateral ceasefire declaration from the outset, while accusing the government of blocking aid for Tigrayans, hundreds of thousands of whom face famine.
Abiy said he would “accelerate” aid, which the UN World Food Programme (WFP) has said was only trickling in and had been repeatedly blocked and delayed.
WFP said a convoy that arrived in the region on Monday was carrying only enough to cover the most basic needs of 200,000 people for a week, a fraction of the 4 million people estimated to need food aid.
The convoy had been stopped and searched 10 times by Ethiopian security forces before it entered Tigray, WFP said, urging smoother passage for aid.
(Reporting by Dawit Endeshaw; additional reporting by Katharine Houreld in Nairobi; Writing by George Obulutsa)