Ethiopia predicted swift victory but defiant northern rebels promised them “hell” on Wednesday in a two-week war threatening the vast country’s unity and further destabilising the Horn of Africa.
The war has killed hundreds, sent 30,000 refugees into Sudan, and called into question whether Africa’s youngest leader, who won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2019, can hold together his nation’s myriad fractious ethnic groups.
Ignoring international appeals for talks, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government says its forces are marching on Tigray’s capital Mekelle and will soon triumph over the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which he accuses of revolt.
The rebels say they have captured tanks and artillery in a string of victories despite being massively outnumbered.
“Tigray is now a hell to its enemies … The people of Tigray will never kneel,” they said in a statement.
The TPLF says Abiy, their ex-military comrade and one-time political partner, has removed Tigrayans from senior security and government posts since he took office in 2018 and now wants to dominate them completely.
Abiy’s government has put former officials – many Tigrayan – on trial for crimes like torture, murder and corruption, but denies any attempt at ethnic domination.
“The federal government… denounces, in the strongest of terms, mischaracterization that this operation has an ethnic or other bias,” the government’s task force on the crisis said.
Debretsion Gebremichael, elected Tigrayan president in polls that Ethiopia does not recognise, told Reuters by text that his forces had fallen back but denied government allegations they destroyed bridges and a road leading to the capital.
“We have shifted our defence line and as a result they get into some towns of South Tigray,” he added.
The Tigrayan leaders accused federal forces of targeting civilians, churches and homes. The government says it is only targeting TPLF targets and has accused Tigrayan forces of using civilians as human shields.