International alarm set in on Tuesday over the escalating war in Ethiopia as Tigrayan rebels said they were moving closer to the capital Addis Ababa and several foreign nationals were asked to leave the country.
U.S. envoy Jeffrey Feltman spoke of some progress in reaching a diplomatic solution to end the years-long conflict, but said it risked being threatened by “alarming developments” on the ground.
France became the latest country to tell its citizens to get out of Ethiopia, while the UN has ordered the immediate evacuation of family members to international staff, according to an internal document released by AFP on Tuesday.
The rebel Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) said this week that it had taken a city just 220km from the capital, although the allegations are difficult to verify due to a communication failure.
On Monday, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said he would take to the battle front to lead his troops in what the government has described as an “existential war” in Africa’s second most populous nation. “We are now in the final stages of rescuing Ethiopia,” said Abiy, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize just two years ago for securing a peace deal with neighboring Eritrea.
Recent developments cast doubt on the hope of a peaceful solution to the conflict, despite hectic diplomatic efforts, led by the African Union, to secure a ceasefire.
Thousands of people have been killed since fighting broke out in northern Ethiopia in November 2020, triggering a humanitarian crisis that the UN says has brought hundreds of thousands of people to the brink of starvation and displaced more than 2 million.
“Although there is some incipient progress, there is a great risk of being overtaken by the military escalation on the two sides,” Feltman, special envoy for the Horn of Africa, told reporters in Washington after returning from Addis Ababa.
A struggle to evacuate foreigners continued, three weeks after the government declared a state of emergency. An internal UN security order said “eligible family members of internationally recruited staff” should be evacuated by 25 November. France also advised its citizens to leave “without delay”, while the US and UK have issued similar announcements in recent weeks.
But officials in the capital told diplomats that security forces, including youth groups, were working to ensure the city’s security. “The propaganda and terror talk spread by the Western media completely contradicts the peaceful state of the city on earth, so the diplomatic community should not feel any concern or fear,” said Kenea Yadeta, head of Addis Ababa’s peace and security. agency.
The conflict erupted when Abiy sent troops into the northern Tigray region to overthrow the TPLF after months of tensions with the party, which had dominated national politics for three decades before taking power in 2018.
Abiy said this was in response to TPLF attacks on federal army camps and promised a quick victory, but by the end of June, the rebels had recaptured most of Tigray, including the capital Mekelle. Since then, the TPLF has pushed into the nearby regions of Afar and Amhara, and earlier this week claimed control of Shewa Robit, just 140 miles northeast of Addis Ababa by road.
The government has not answered questions about who controlled the city.
Some TPLF fighters were also believed to have reached Debre Sina, about 19 miles closer to Addis Ababa, diplomats said.
In Pretoria, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa and his Kenyan counterpart, Uhuru Kenyatta, added their voices to calls on the two sides to commit to an immediate ceasefire.
But Abiy has cast doubt on the prospect of a peaceful solution. “From tomorrow, I will mobilize to the front to lead the defense forces,” he said Monday. “Those who want to be among the Ethiopian children who will be hailed by history stand up for your country today. Let’s meet up front.”
Meanwhile, on Tuesday, the UN launched an effort to bring food aid to two cities in northern Ethiopia despite looting department stores. The UN World Food Program said the “major food aid operation” would serve more than 450,000 people over the next two weeks in the Amhara cities of Kombolcha and Dessie, located at a strategic crossroads on the main road to Addis Ababa.