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War in Tigray

'Active' army campaign in Tigray over, says Ethiopia’s PM, but doubts remain

A member of the Amhara Special Forces holds his gun while another washes his face in Humera, Ethiopia on 22 November 2020.
A member of the Amhara Special Forces holds his gun while another washes his face in Humera, Ethiopia on 22 November 2020. © AFP - Eduardo Soteras
4 min

The Ethiopian government says the “active phase” of military operations in Tigray is over, following the capture of the regional capital Mekelle. Addis Ababa on Monday questioned the ability of the rebel administration to mount a guerrilla war, while a UN security team was reportedly shot at as they tried to enter the Shimelba refugee camp in Tigray.

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“The criminal clique is thoroughly defeated and in disarray,” said a statement from the office of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, referring to the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF), the target of the Ethiopian army's military campaign launched at the start of November. 

The government's claims of a lack of civilian casualties have been contradicted by humanitarian organisations, with the International Committee of the Red Cross previously warning about hospitals in Mekelle struggling to cope with the wounded. 

Abiy’s government also published a video on Monday claiming the TPLF had used make-up to depict injuries to children as part of a “smear campaign”. 

The five-minute presentation shared on social media and translated into English by the “Ethiopia State of Emergency Fact Check” state agency showed movie-style makeup techniques being applied to kids, claiming the aim of the TPLF was to share such images online to help turn public opinion against Ethiopia’s military operation. 

A boy with makeup depicting a head injury speaks to the “Ethiopia State of Emergency Fact Check” government agency about images of the war wounded being shared on social media.
A boy with makeup depicting a head injury speaks to the “Ethiopia State of Emergency Fact Check” government agency about images of the war wounded being shared on social media. © “Ethiopia State of Emergency Fact Check” via Facebook

TPLF leaders have said they are continuing to fight back against Ethiopian forces in areas around Mekelle, according to the Reuters news agency

Such reports contradict claims about the security situation advanced by the Ethiopian federal government, while other reports on casualties directly undermines the government account of events. 

The AFP news agency reported on Monday that 27 civilians and more than 100 people were injured on 28 November in artillery attacks on Mekelle, citing a doctor from one of the hospitals. 

Guerrilla experience

“The claim by Abiy of a quick victory is unrealistic,” said political analyst Yohannes Woldemariam at the University of Colorado. “The capture of cities means very little in the kind of war that the TPLF is waging.

“It looks like they're transitioning into guerrilla war for which they have plenty of experience, during the 17 years armed struggle against the military government (1975-91),” Yohannes told RFI by email. 

Access for humanitarian aid to Tigray remains a concern despite a deal between the UN and Ethiopian government to allow “unimpeded” access for relief. Both AFP and Reuters reported on difficulties gaining access, citing UN and senior aid officials, as well as looting and lawlessness making the region unsafe for aid convoys.

A UN security team planning to visit an Eritrean refugee camp in the Tigray region was shot at and denied access, Reuters reported on Monday, citing two diplomatic sources. 

The International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based non-governmental organisation, says thousands of people have died in the fighting, both civilians and soldiers. More than 47,000 people have streamed across the border to neighbouring Sudan, according to the UN refugee agency

Abiy launched the operation against the TPLF following accusations that the regional Tigrayan authorities had masterminded an attack against Ethiopian federal troops. 

The TPLF had dominated Ethiopia’s federal government, based on ethnicity and region, for decades, however, fell out of favour following the appointment of Nobel Peace Prize winner Abiy. 

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