Ethiopia: Tigray people ‘ready to die’ as leader rejects call to surrender

Diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis in Ethiopia appeared in disarray on Tuesday, less than two days before a deadline for the surrender of the leadership of the restive northern region of Tigray expires, after which federal troops have been ordered to attack its capital.

The leader of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the ruling party in the region, has said his people are “ready to die” defending their homeland, rejecting the prime minister’s Sunday night demand that they lay down their arms within 72 hours.

Abiy Ahmed launched a military campaign against the TPLF on 4 November, accusing it of attacking two federal military camps in the northern region, and of defying and seeking to destabilise his government.

The federal army says its forces are within 37 miles (60km) of Mekelle, Tigray’s capital and the seat of the TPLF, ahead of a threatened bombardment of the city of half a million people.

Abiy – last year’s Nobel peace prize winner – on Sunday called on the TPLF to surrender peacefully within three days, saying they were “at a point of no return”.

“The highly aggressive rhetoric on both sides regarding the fight for Mekele is dangerously provocative and risks placing already vulnerable and frightened civilians in grave danger,” Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, said. The allegation that Tigray leaders were hiding among civilians “does not then give the Ethiopian state carte blanche to respond with the use of artillery in densely populated areas”, she added.

The UN security council scheduled, then cancelled, then rescheduled its first meeting to discuss the situation on Tuesday.

The current African Union chair, South Africa’s president, Cyril Ramaphosa, has backed sending three high-level envoys for Ethiopia, an initiative the UN praised for “efforts to peacefully resolve the conflict”, but Ethiopian officials have said any envoys would not be allowed to meet with the TPLF leadership.

“All possible scenarios will be on the table to talk, except bringing the gang to the table as a legitimate entity,” a senior Ethiopian spokesman, Redwan Hussein, said.

Ethiopian officials describe the offensive in Tigray as a “law enforcement operation” aiming to remove rebel leaders and restore central authority in the region. The TPLF says it is defending its legitimate rights under Ethiopia’s devolved constitutional system.

Ethiopia has long been a linchpin of US policy in the fragile east-African region and so far Washington has supported Abiy.

Tibor Nagy, the US assistant secretary for African affairs, told reporters last week: “This is not two sovereign states fighting. This is a faction of the government running a region that has decided to undertake hostilities against the central government, and it has not … had the effect they thought they were going to get.”

The TPLF’s leader, Debretsion Gebremichael, claimed Abiy’s ultimatum was an effort to cover for setbacks his army had suffered against Tigrayan forces. “He doesn’t understand who we are. We are people of principle and ready to die in defence of our right to administer our region,” Debretsion told Agence France-Presse via WhatsApp on Monday.

A spokesman for the Tigray forces said they had “completely destroyed” the army’s 21st mechanised division while statements published online by Tigrayan authorities described federal forces suffering “thousands” of casualties. There is no confirmation of the claims and government officials did not return calls seeking comment.

The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission said on Tuesday its investigations had found that a Tigrayan youth group had stabbed, strangled, and bludgeoned to death at least 600 civilians with the collusion of local security forces during a massacre in the town of Mai Kadra two weeks ago.

The attack was aimed primarily at labourers of non-Tigrayan origins, from the Amhara and Wolkait ethnic groups, said the state-appointed commission. The Tigrayan forces’ leaders could not immediately be reached for comment but have previously denied any responsibility for the massacre.

A communications blackout in the region has made claims from both sides difficult to verify.

The conflict has killed hundreds so far and displaced many more. More than 40,000 refugees have crossed into neighbouring Sudan and roads in Tigray are crowded with people escaping from the fighting.
Ethiopia/Tigray map

The army has threatened a “no mercy” tank assault on the TPLF leadership in Mekelle, warning civilians to leave while they can. The threat has prompted widespread concern, with human rights campaigners saying it could breach international legal codes.

“Treating a whole city as a military target would not only [be] unlawful, it could also be considered a form of collective punishment,” the Human Rights Watch researcher Laetitia Bader said.

Abiy has urged the people of Mekelle to side with the national army against the TPLF “in bringing this treasonous group to justice”.

Observers point to growing evidence of an ethnic dimension to the conflict, pitting the Amhara people from the neighbouring province against Tigrayans.

With fighting having subsided in the west of Tigray, government officials are seeking to reimpose order in the strategically important town of Humera after ousting TPLF forces early in the war. The strategy appears to be to erase TPLF control partly by bringing administrators in from the Amhara region, a move that risks inflaming ethnic tensions.

Throughout much of the west, federal soldiers are scarcely seen, with security being maintained by Amhara’s uniformed “special forces”. Civil servants have also arrived from Amhara to take over the administration of some Tigrayan towns and cities.

TPLF banners at checkpoints and in town squares in Humera have been replaced by the green, yellow and red imperial-era flag of Amhara nationalism.

The presence of Amhara flags, officials and soldiers will fuel fears of an occupation among Tigrayans, who are mired in a decades-old dispute over land that has, in the past, sparked violent clashes and continues to be a dangerous flashpoint.