State media says Abiy's announcement he would go to the front line inspired people to answer the call to arms
Addis Ababa (AFP) - Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has arrived at the front line where government forces are battling rebels from the northernmost Tigray region, state-affiliated media said Wednesday.
International alarm has mounted over the escalating year-long conflict, prompting foreign governments to tell their citizens to leave amid fears the Tigrayan rebels could march on the capital Addis Ababa.
Abiy, winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, “is now leading the counter-offensive” and “has been giving leadership from the battlefield as of yesterday,” Fana Broadcasting Corporate reported.
It was not clear where exactly Abiy, a former radio operator in the military who rose to lieutenant-colonel, had deployed, and state media did not broadcast images of him in the field.
Officials have not responded to requests for details about his mission and whereabouts.
Hundreds of new Ethiopian army recruits join a ceremony in the capital Addis Ababa
The fighting in the north of Africa’s second most populous country has killed thousands of people and forced hundreds of thousands into famine-like conditions, according to UN estimates.
Foreign envoys have been frantically pushing for a ceasefire, though there have been few signs a breakthrough is coming.
Jeffrey Feltman, Washington’s special envoy for the Horn of Africa, said on Tuesday that “nascent progress” risked being “outpaced by the military escalation by the two sides”.
The war erupted in November 2020 when Abiy sent troops into Tigray to topple its ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
He said the move was in response to TPLF attacks on federal army camps and promised a swift victory, but by late June the rebels had retaken most of Tigray including its capital Mekele.
Since then the TPLF has pushed into neighbouring Amhara and Afar regions, and this week it claimed to have seized a town just 220 kilometres (135 miles) from the capital.
- New recruits -
Abiy’s announcement Monday that he would deploy to the front “has inspired many to… join the survival campaign”, Fana said Wednesday.
Abiy Ahmed, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019, was sworn in for a new term in October
On Wednesday hundreds of new recruits took part in a ceremony held in their honour in the capital’s Kolfe district.
As officials corralled sheep and oxen into trucks bound for the north, the recruits broke into patriotic songs and chants.
“I was amazed when I heard” Abiy planned to join soldiers in the field, one of the recruits, 42-year-old driver Tesfaye Sherefa, told AFP.
“When a leader leaves his chair… and his throne it is to rescue his country. His focus is not to live, but to rescue this country, and I sobbed when he said follow me and went to the front line.”
Among those saying they would fight is Feyisa Lilesa, a distance runner and Olympic silver medallist, who told state media the rebels’ advance presented “a great opportunity” to defend the country.
“When a country is violated, there is no way I will stand by and just watch,” Feyisa said.
Map of Ethiopia locating northern regions Amhara, Tigray and Afar, and Debre Sina
The marathon runner gained political prominence by raising and crossing his arms as he finished the marathon at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro – a gesture of solidarity with fellow ethnic Oromos killed while protesting abuses committed during nearly three decades of TPLF rule.
- Exodus -
Even as it rallies citizens to fight, Abiy’s government insists the TPLF’s gains have been overstated, criticising what it describes as sensationalist media coverage and alarmist security advisories from embassies.
The UK became the latest country to urge all its nationals to leave Ethiopia immediately, following similar calls by France, Germany, Italy and the United States.
The war has triggered a humanitarian crisis, with accounts of massacres and mass rapes, and on Wednesday the UN expressed worry over reports of large-scale displacement from western Tigray, where the US has previously warned of ethnic cleansing.
An Ethiopian police officer talks to new volunteers who registered to conduct night patrols
The UN refugee agency UNHCR and other agencies have “received very concerning reports of new waves of displacement” from the territory which borders Sudan and Eritrea, UNHCR said in a statement.
“Tigray zonal authorities report of 8,000 new arrivals, potentially up to 20,000,” UNHCR said, adding that it could not immediately corroborate the figures.
Several witnesses have told AFP of mass roundups of Tigrayan civilians in western Tigray in recent days.
Amhara forces occupied the fiercely contested area a year ago, with Amhara officials accusing the TPLF of illegally annexing it three decades earlier.
As Amhara civilians have poured in over the past year, Tigrayans have fled in the tens of thousands – either west into Sudan or east, deeper into Tigray.