NAIROBI, Kenya The conflict in northern Ethiopia has escalated sharply in recent days as Ethiopian forces launched a sweeping offensive in a bid to overturn recent gains by Tigrayan rebels, Western officials and Tigrayan leaders said.
UN officials said the attack would deepen the humanitarian crisis in a region that is sinking into the world’s worst famine in a decade. With the Ethiopian government blocking aid shipments, some hungry tigers are eating leaves to survive.
Senior Western officials widely confirmed Tigrayan’s confessions that the attack, which had been planned for weeks, began in the Amhara region, which borders Tigray to the south. But beyond that, it is difficult to get a clear picture of the situation.
A strict interruption of communication imposed by the government means that some details about the fighting can be independently confirmed. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who was sworn in for a second term last week, has refused to comment in recent days.
His spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
Talking on the phone, Gene Tsadkan Gebretensae, said a member of the Tigray Forces Central Command and its chief strategist Ethiopian forces had launched the military operation on Friday with a bombardment of Tigrayan positions using fighter jets, artillery and drones.
On Monday, the Ethiopians went on a ground offensive led by thousands of fighters, to face a Tigrayan counter-attack, he said.
The enemy has been preparing for months, and so have we, said General Tsadkan, who previously commanded the Ethiopian Armed Forces for a decade. He predicted that the next battle would be a crucial moment for the country.
The consequences will be military, political and diplomatic, he said. I don’t think this is going to be a protracted fight for a few days, most likely weeks.
For Mr. Abiy, winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, the offensive is an attempt to seize control of a brutal 11-month war that has shattered his reputation as a peacemaker and slipped beyond his control as fighting spread to new areas. recently months.
Mr Abiy has emerged increasingly isolated from international support as the United States threatens him with the prospect of sanctions and he clashes with the UN leadership. Only a handful of African leaders have continued to support him.
This month, Ethiopia expelled seven senior UN officials whom it accused of interfering in the internal affairs of nations and diverting aid to Tigrayan rebels. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres denied the allegations in extremely sharp language, telling Mr Abiy that the deportations had no legal basis.
Resembling the situation with Somalia’s devastating famine of 2011, Guterres said he warned Mr. Abij that Ethiopian restrictions on aid had created a humanitarian crisis that was spiraling out of control.
Over five million tigers are in urgent need of help, and at least 400,000 are in starvation, says the UN. But barely a tenth of the aid sought has reached them because Ethiopia has blocked roads to the region, officials said.
The Biden administration has tried to force Mr Abiy and the Tigrayans into peace talks by threatening sanctions against officials and entities that block humanitarian aid and refuse to stop fighting.
With his latest attack, however, Mr. Abiy seems to be playing gambling that can prevail using force.
Western officials said the Ethiopian leader had been preparing the offensive for months. He amassed new weapons from foreign suppliers and recruited tens of thousands of young Ethiopians to help fight the Tigrayan forces he has described as cancer and weeds.
A Western official said Abiy had bought new drones built in Iran, Turkey and China, though it is unclear who supplied them in Ethiopia. Websites that track international air traffic have recorded dozens of cargo flights from the UAE, and a handful from Iran, at Ethiopian Air Force bases in the last six weeks.
Tigrayan leaders have accused the UAE of sending armed drones to help Mr. Abiy during the first weeks of the war last November; Emirates officials declined to comment. The airstrikes took over most of the Tigrayan artillery and forced its troops to retreat to the remote village.
A more important question now is whether Eritrea will gather again on the side of Mr. Abiys. Eritrean troops offered crucial support in the first phase of the war, until June, and faced many of the worst allegations of atrocities against civilians. Eritreans are currently occupying Humera, a city in western Tigray, and some have settled in Amhara, two Western officials said.
But it is unclear whether they are taking part in the recent fighting.
The Tigrayan forces scored a series of surprising victories that forced the Ethiopian forces to leave Tigray. In July, the Tigrayans were pushed into the Amhara region, where fighting has been concentrated ever since.
A long-running dispute between Amhara and Tigray over a disputed area drew Amhara militias into the fight against Tigray last November. The Tigrayans say those fighters are also taking part in recent offensives, along with regular Ethiopian troops and youths from across Ethiopia drawn by Mr. Abiys appeal to recruits during the summer.
But General Tsadkan, the Tigrayan commander, said he considered Eritrea’s autocratic leader Isaias Afwerki, who is an old enemy of the Tigrayans, as his biggest threat.
Isaias and his army are the main destroyers in the region, he said. If the international community is persistently seeking a peaceful solution, a solution will not happen without caring about Isaiah.
Both sides face strong pressures. The Tigrayans, surrounded by enemies, threaten to run out of supplies soon. Mr. Abiy is struggling with a major economic slide that has led to rising food prices and foreign exchange shortages, which US sanctions could soon worsen.
Ethiopian Airlines, Africa’s largest airline and Ethiopia’s economic success, last week denied a report on CNN that its planes had been used to send weapons and soldiers to the war in Tigray.
On Tuesday, US Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken met with the newly appointed African Union envoy to Ethiopia, former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, to discuss the crisis.
Some African leaders are close to Mr. Abiy. Six heads of state, mostly from the region, attended his inauguration celebrations in Addis Ababa last week. But some of the congratulatory speeches included expressions of growing concern and pushed Mr. Abiy towards peace talks.
Ethiopia is our mother, said Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta. If our mother is not at peace, neither can the family be at peace.
Criticism of Mr. Abiy in the West is becoming increasingly harsh. Last week one essay by Mark Lowcock, a former British diplomat and until recently UN humanitarian chief, accused Mr. Abiy that he was trying to starve the people of Tigray either subjugated or out of existence and warned that he was in danger of causing the collapse of his country.
The Abiys game plan could not work, Lowcock wrote, citing what he said was a growing consensus of experts. If he tries and fails to destroy Tigray, he will destroy himself. If he succeeds, he will never survive the harsh reaction that will follow.
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