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The Ethiopian leader vows to lead the troops as the war threatens to escalate




NAIROBI, Kenya The Nobel Peace Prize has followed Abiy Ahmed since he went to war a year ago, fueling the anger of critics who saw the 2019 award given to the Ethiopian prime minister as a terrible mistake.

But this week Mr. Abiy went a step further when he declared that he was going to the battle front himself to lead the army as it tries to avoid rebels advancing in the capital.

As of Thursday, there was no sign of Mr. Abiy delegating the daily direction of Ethiopia, Africa’s second most populous country, to his deputy. His office declined to say where he was. But it added to the growing sense of urgency for a war that has displaced two million Ethiopians, pushed at least 400,000 into starvation-like conditions and now threatens to tear the country apart.

Foreigners are fleeing in droves, and an American-led diplomatic skirmish to mediate a peace has stalled. Ethnic Tigris rebels, who began their march on Addis Ababa from northern Ethiopia in July, say there are now 120 miles of roads from the capital.

As fears grow that the capital’s airport, one of the busiest in Africa, may close soon, two US military officials have confirmed a report that C-17 military cargo planes are positioned in neighboring Djibouti, in case the evacuation of American citizens becomes necessary.

Officials noted that this was unlikely to happen during Thanksgiving weekend. But beyond that, few were willing to predict what might happen next.

Although his army has suffered a series of humiliating defeats, Mr. Abiy has a deep well of public support. His challenge was publicly backed on Wednesday by an Ethiopian national hero, two-time Olympic gold medalist Haile Gebrselassie, who announced that he too would go to the front lines.

Mr. Gebrselaisse is 48 years old. But many younger Ethiopians are backing Mr Abiys’s campaign, offering to defend Addis Ababa or join the battle in the north even if they have never fired a gun.

I am following the prime minister, said Sintayehu Mulgeta, 28, a taxi driver who has joined a newly formed vigilante group walking the streets of Addis Ababa at night, armed with batons, firing on suspected rebels.

Mr Sintayehu blamed the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, which dominated Ethiopia for 27 years until 2018, and controls rebels now approaching the capital for the death of his cousin during a 2016 political protest.

They have my cousins ​​with blood on their hands, he said. I never love them again.

The combative attitude reflected the overwhelming turn that Mr. Abiy got it just two years ago when he stood on a stage in the Norwegian capital Oslo to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. War is the embodiment of hell, Mr. Abiy said then.

Last year, however, references to hellish suffering in Ethiopia focused mainly on Tigray, the northern region where Mr. Abiys’s forces and their allies from Eritrea and the neighboring Amhara region have faced charges of massacre, sexual violence and ethnic cleansing.

Tigers have also faced charges of abuse, albeit on a smaller scale.

The Biden administration is leading a diplomatic effort to stop the fighting and prevent the collapse of a key US security partner in the Horn of Africa. Visiting Kenya last week, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken discussed the crisis with President Uhuru Kenyatta.

But the Tigrayans have continued to push south, this week claiming to be outside Debre Sina, a key town, perched on a high ridge, about 120 miles from Addis Ababa by road.

The Ethiopian government has wavered between desecrating foreign media to overwhelm its losses and delivering dramatic gestures that seem to show weakness as much as strength.

Before leaving for the battlefield this week, Mr. Abiy was at a time when martyrdom was needed.

On Wednesday, his government ousted four Irish diplomats from six in the country over Ireland’s outspoken criticism of Mr Abiys’s actions. They joined the list of foreign journalists, aid workers and senior United Nations officials who have been forced to flee Ethiopia since the summer, when the war wave began to return.

Security forces have been involved in a fierce gathering of ethnic tigers that has seen thousands of detainees, many gathered in makeshift detention centers.

In daily recruitment ceremonies, older Ethiopians listen intently to speeches denouncing the Tigrayan junta, as it is called TPLF, while younger men and women voluntarily go to the front line.

“I do not want to see the ruling junta again,” said Tilahun Mamo, 32, a parking attendant who leads a group of 30 vigilantes in the Bole district, and expects to be called to war.

The deep-rooted fear of Tigrayan rule is under the support of some of Mr. Abiys. During its 27 years of political domination, the TPLF brought economic progress to Ethiopia, but also manipulated elections, imprisoned and tortured critics, and stifled the free press.

But analysts say Mr Abiy has also engaged in a co-ordinated campaign to insult the Tigris, which senior UN officials have warned could escalate into ethnic or even genocidal violence.

Why sit back and wait for the terrorists to come and take my city? said Dereje Tegenu, a 42-year-old security guard and member of a vigilante group in Addis Ababa. I will go fight them.

Ethnic break lines are most alive among the Oromos, who make up about a third of Ethiopia’s 110 million inhabitants. Although Mr. Abiy, whose father is Oromo, came to power in 2018 in a wave of street protests led by angry Oromo youth, many in that movement now say he betrayed their cause.

Some have taken up arms against him, mostly through the Oromos Liberation Army which has joined the Tigers in marching in Addis.

In a telephone interview, Jaal Marroo, the leader of the Oromo group, rejected Mr. Abiys’s commitment to go to war as a joke and predicted that the country was heading towards chaos.

The government is frustrated, using human waves to play the last card of ethnic group mobilization, he said.

Oromo political prisoners say their lives are in danger. Jawar Mohammed and Bekele Gerba, two prominent Oromo leaders jailed last year, issued a statement through their families this week saying they fear their prison guards are trying to kill them.

This week, France and Germany joined the list of Western countries urging their citizens to leave Ethiopia as soon as possible, while regular flights are still operational. The U.S. Embassy has ordered all non-essential personnel to leave and this week warned of the potential for unspecified terrorist attacks in Ethiopia.

At a news conference Thursday, an Ethiopian government spokesman denounced the US warning as false information.

Reporting was contributed by Eric Schmitt in San Francisco and a New York Times reporter in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.




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