A week ago, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali announced to the world that the armed intervention in Tigray against the ‘criminal’ junta of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front – TPLF had ended with the conquest of Mekelle. After the supposed defeat of the TPLF, presented to the media as a fact, only police operations were underway to disarm the last remaining rebels and arrest the fugitive Tigrinya leaders. P.M. Abiy said in the Ethiopian parliament that no civilians were killed by federal troops.
Various Western countries had breathed a sigh of relief. The Ethiopian crisis had been short-lived and the strongman could now be forgiven for any war crimes in the name of regional stability. Crimes still in doubt a week ago but now impossible to deny because of amount of credible testimonies reported by refugees in Sudan. The quick victory would have made it difficult to understand the extent of the violence committed against civilians and would have saved the West from the embarrassment of a prime minister presented as a democrat and reformer who turned into a perfect warlord one year after receiving the Nobel Prize for Peace.
This was the main reason that prompted the European Union to place the intervention position promoted by the Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte to stop the war in a clear minority, preferring the Chinese principle of “non-interference in internal affairs” of Ethiopia to the detriment of all democratic values and respect for human rights, important pillars of the creation of the EU.
Ethiopoint, one of the many online federal propaganda sites even went so far as to present a situation of total defeat of the TPLF in a recent article. “TPLF forces and militias are abandoning their trenches and Mekele due to a lack of food and logistics supplies. TPLF soldiers suffer from a number of problems, including a lack of direct communication with superiors in Mekele and a fuel shortage that has put more pressure on the logistics system. The rebel forces are defeated and demoralized. They are now just weak, hungry, leaderless fighters slaughtering each other “. Other pro-government media claimed that various TPLF leaders had fled to mountainous areas, while others had crossed the Sudanese and South Sudanese border. State TV showed images of Mekelle being released, shops open, happy people.
Nothing more false. Fighting resumed two days after Mekelle’s fall in different parts of Trigray according to UN sources. The TPLF still has 200,000 well-armed men, (50,000 according to the federal government) sufficient to activate the second phase of the conflict, the deadliest: the Afghanistan-style guerrilla, facilitated by the impenetrable Tigray mountains and the full support of the population who consider the feds not as liberators but occupation troops.
According to initial reports, the Tigrinya in Mekelle and in the main cities are demonstrating against the military occupation and carrying out every possible form of boycott against the invader. In Mekelle, the tension between civilians and federal troops remains high. There are various reports of looting of private homes, hotels, shops and factories perpetuated by the feds army and the fascist Amhara militias. The government of Addis Ababa, contacted by Reuters, preferred not to respond to the accusations.
The Tigrinya forces are concentrating their deadly attacks on the 2 divisions of the Eritrean army, held responsible for the partial defeat suffered in the first phase of the conflict. “First we will annihilate the Eritrean mercenaries then we will free our country” says a Tigrinya officer we contacted. Asmara has never confirmed that part of his army is fighting in Tigray alongside Abiy but the evidence is now too much to deny the direct involvement of the Eritrean fascist regime. One of the recent tests is the battle that took place two days ago between the TPLF forces and units of the regular army of Eritrea at the town of Wukro, 50 km north of Mekelle. The TPLF claims to have won and taken several Eritrean soldiers prisoner. At present, no images of Eritrean prisoners have yet been released.
Debretsion Gebremichael, who leads the TPLF, in a message to the Reuters news agency says that Tigrinya forces have recaptured the city of Aksum. According to local sources, the city was controlled by units of the Eritrean army. As a sign of détente, in view of possible negotiations, the TPLF would have released 4,000 federal soldiers captured in early November.
In a BBC interview last Monday, Democratization Minister Zadig Abraha denied the TPLF’s claims that they had captured Aksum by saying the TPLF had no chance of organizing a guerrilla war. “The ranks of the Tigrinya fighters are dissolved. Everyone is either giving up or running away ”. Immediate response from Fisseha Asgedom, former Ethiopian ambassador to the United Nations with affiliations to the TPLF. Asgedom told the BBC that the Addis Ababa government’s reports of total control of the Tigray territory are simply “a joke“.
The resumption of fighting, despite the Ethiopian government’s announcements of victory, are also confirmed by the United Nations, and are complicating the delivery of humanitarian aid in Tigray. “We have reports of continuing fighting in different parts of Tigray,” Saviano Abreu, spokesman for the United Nations Office for Humanitarian Aid Coordination (OCHA), told AFP on Friday, adding that the UN is continuing to negotiate “with all parties to the conflict“ in order to obtain the necessary permits to offer assistance to civilians. On Wednesday, the Ethiopian government granted “unrestricted” humanitarian access to the region to the UN, which had been asking for it for several weeks to avoid a potential disaster, ensuring that the entire region had been “liberated and pacified“. Now the UN Agencies have to ask the federal and TPLF for permission to access …
OCHA reiterated last Saturday that humanitarian agencies in an attempt to access populations in need of assistance must negotiate with both federal and Tigrinya troops. This implies that the TPLF forces still control some areas or are, at the very least, still active there. Military observers point out that the rapid advance of federal troops as far as Mekelle would have forced them to reduce the units in defence of the newly conquered Tigrinya towns and cities, which now risk returning to the control of the TPLF. Even the fall of Mekelle would be fictitious.
“The federal troops, in the race against time to obtain the lightning victory ordered by Prime Minister Abiy, surrounded the cities and immediately moved on to the next one without conquering or partially conquering them. Even in Mekelle we didn’t actually fight, as the TPLF escaped under our noses.” says an Amhara militiaman to the social media of the Ethiopian diaspora. In Mekelle, the Tigrinya forces have decided not to fight to spare civilians from the bombardment of multiple fragmentation bombs and incendiary bombs, already used on the capital before the attack and in various other cities, to then clamp down on the invaders in a fatal grip. At the moment no one can verify all this contradictory news but the perception that the reality is different from that told by the Ethiopian Premier is high. It is no coincidence that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (still in office for a few days) phoned Abiy to call for an end to “the fighting and constructive dialogue to resolve the crisis“.
Diplomatic sources report that the TPLF has seized a range of weapons, including rockets and anti-aircraft missiles, which would have enabled it to face the federal supremacy. Two days ago the TPLF announced that it had shot down a federal fighter. News denied by Addis Ababa. The anti-aircraft weapons supplied by the Tigrinya forces could effectively counter federal military aviation: 15 Sukhoi, Su-27SK, Mig-23ML, MI-24 and Mi-35 combat helicopters.
In front of the probable 200,000 well-armed men that the TPLF would dispose, the federal army is able to oppose 140,000 soldiers, without resorting to the forced enlistment of the Ethiopian male population. Already several thousand young Amhara have fled taking refuge in Sudan for fear of being sent to the front to die after a few days of summary training as happened during the Ethiopian-Eritrean war.
If these estimates are correct, the Ethiopian army may have fewer soldiers than the TPLF, but it could increase its numbers (before resorting to the desperate act of mass forced enlistment), drawing on the special forces of other regional governments. At the moment only the forces of the Amhara region, bordering Tigray, have responded to Abiy’s appeal by sending their militias, accused of having slaughtered tens of thousands of civilians. It is highly unlikely that the special forces of Oromia, Afar, Sindama, Gambella, Harari, Benishangul-Gumuz Regions Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ Region and Somali Region will respond to the appeal of a leader they poorly tolerated and accused of having dictatorial aims.
The involvement of the Amhara region was also not easy according to confidential sources. To win a conflict, which was declared over prematurely, Warlord Abiy Ahmed Ali would have contacted far-right groups of the Amhara ethnic group to involve them in a plan to colonize Tigray in exchange for their active participation in the conflict. These far-right groups allegedly lobbied the regional government to endorse involvement in the insane civil war.
But the Amhara militias are not enough to defeat a well-prepared and ideologically motivated army like that of the TPLF. For this reason, the support of the divisions sent from Eritrea and the combat drones of the United Arab Emirates was fundamental. While the Arab monarchy refuses at the moment to engage herself more in the conflict (by sending aviation and ground troops) sources African diplomats warn that negotiations are underway with the Asmara government to triple the number of its soldiers fighting in Trigay in exchange for territories in the rebel region.
According to confidential sources, the Ethiopian Prime Minister intends to disintegrate the ethnic composition of Tigray, dispersing the Tigray population throughout the country and handing over the depopulated territories to both Amhara settlers and Eritrea. This suspicion contradicts P.M Abiy’s declaration, addressed to the Western media, of wanting to favor the return of refugees to their homes.
From the intensity of the ongoing clashes it seems that the TPLF was able to initiate the second phase of the conflict: that of the guerrillas. There are numerous examples of guerrillas facing better armed opponents. The Americans have all kinds of drones and fighters in Afghanistan, but the Taliban survived. The Houthi rebels in Yemen have survived the superiority of arms of the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. “
Arhe Hamednaca, who took part in the liberation war against the Stalinist regime of the DERG and now a parliamentarian in Sweden, reported that the possibilities for the TPLF to activate a winning guerrilla war in the medium term are concrete provided that they are not closed territorially. “During the war of liberation, in the 1980s the TPLF had its outlet to the Red Sea through Eritrea, at the time still under Ethiopia. Eritrea was an excellent refuge when the regular army of Mengistu Haile Mariam launched military offensives and held superiority in numbers and means. It is no coincidence that Prime Minister Abiy has become a staunch ally of Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki who, for reasons of disputed territories and ethnic family reasons, is the main enemy of the TPLF.
The alliance with Afwerki and Eritrean military involvement blocked the Tigrigna forces from having secure military bases in the north, in Eritrea. Now the TPLF can only hope for the corridor with Sudan. It is no coincidence that the federal government’s military offensive has focused above all on the Sudanese border to close this territorial outlet for food, weapons and ammunition supplies. For Addis Ababa it is vital to prevent the TPLF from setting up bases in neighbouring countries as it did when it fought the Stalinist regime of Mengistu 29 years ago. At the moment it seems that the goal of territorially limiting the TPLF has succeeded but this does not necessarily mean that the federal forces will have the quick victory they hope and need ”explains Hamednaca.
For the TPLF, the alliance with Sudan is essential to obtain new supplies and continue the war. Officially, the Khartoum government declares that it does not want to meddle in Ethiopia’s “internal affairs” and as a sign of goodwill it has arrested a TPLF executive who fled to Gedaref and handed him over to the Ethiopian authorities. A gesture of facade, say Western diplomatic sources. The executive had no military posts and was disliked by the military junta that participates in the transitional government of Khartoum for illicit trafficking that ended badly for the Sudanese.
Despite the difficulties in securing a strategic corridor, the TPLF appears to be in the process of securing important regional allies. According to reports from the South Sudanese media last weekend, the military political leader of the TPLF, Debretsion Gebremichael in a secret meeting in Juba (capital of South Sudan) met Egyptian President Al Sisi, military representatives of Khartoum and the President of South Sudan Save Kiir. The news is also picked up by the Italian newspaper Il Manifesto, while stating that there are no official press releases confirming this meeting.
Confidential sources inform that during the meeting Gebremichael would have received the assurances of Egypt, Sudan and South Sudan of indirect support in arms, ammunition, food, medicines and funding necessary to conduct an effective guerrilla capable of bringing down the federal government of the First Minister Abiy. “Relations between Ethiopia and the countries downstream of the Nile are now worn down by the GERD dam which threatens to reduce the flow of water in the river on which the lives of millions of people depend, especially in Sudan and Egypt. The negotiations that took place during the construction of the dam before and with the end of the work did not reach a satisfactory mediation for all the countries involved and the decision of Ethiopia to fill the reservoir in two years instead of the 10-15 desired by the Egypt has led to a stalemate in the negotiations: Tigray could be the means for Egypt and Sudan to shift Ethiopia’s decisions ” explains Italian newspaper Il Manifesto.
The support of South Sudan would be a reflection as currently the country, just out of the civil war started in 2013 thanks to a fragile and precarious peace, also depends on financial aid from Egypt. The entry into the scene of South Sudan worries many regional observers as it could portend the involvement of the powers of the Great Lakes Region including Uganda, Congo, Rwanda. The latter traditionally linked to the TPLF for political reasons and ethnic affinities. The Tigrinya have always claimed that the Rwandan and Burundian Tutsis are secondary ethnic groups that originated from historical migrations from Tigray. The involvement, certainly not desirable, of the powers of East Africa could generate chain wars precisely in the Great Lakes where strong tensions already exist between Rwanda, Congo and Burundi, Uganda.
No actor involved wanted to confirm or disavow the alleged meeting in Juba but something must have really happened as Ethiopia expelled all the diplomats of South Sudan and in the same hours the Ethiopian ambassador, Fisseha Shawl, suddenly left Juba. The diplomatic crisis ended immediately with the return of the respective diplomatic representations but the suspicion of the creation of a pro TPLF Cairo – Khartoum – Juba axis still remains strong. The Addis Ababa government has denied this hypothesis, arguing that “it is fictional news spread by elements that support the disinformation campaign of the criminal clique of the TPLF“.
The TPLF, since the liberation war against the DERG has always been able to mobilize the people by claiming that it was a struggle for the survival and sovereignty of the country. Now he uses his nationalistic rhetoric for the survival of the Tigray and is still militarily strong. It also has the support of the population and hopes for the help of regional powers. A prolonged war would weaken the federal government, encouraging other ethnic groups, primarily the Oromo, to rebel with guns in hand.
The international community is realizing that the civil war in Ethiopia is not over and risks turning into an African Syria where various international actors could fight proxy wars. The main actors already involved are Eritrea and the United Arab Emirates. The suspicions of a progressive and inevitable involvement of Egypt, Sudan and South Sudan grow stronger with each passing day. Other actors could enter the scene. Turkey as opposed to Egypt. Iran as opposed to the United Arab Emirates. Rwanda as opposed to Uganda and Burundi.
This war must be stopped at all costs also with the sending of a multinational force with full mandates of “Full Combat“, capable of protecting the Tigrinya population and forcing the TPLF and Abiy to cease hostilities and open peace talks. This is the wish of the most attentive political observers and experts in the region. “Peace is of vital importance for the survival of Ethiopia and for the stability of the entire African continent. In addition to the risk of transforming itself into a Syria in the Horn of Africa, there are already the risks of a revenge by the Islamic terrorist forces on the weak Somali government due to the withdrawal of Ethiopian troops that would destabilize the neighbouring Ethiopian region of the Somali Region. Other signs point to an ethnic war between Tigris and Amhara eagerly desired and encouraged by Prime Minister Abiy and an armed revolt in the Oromia strongly encouraged by Cairo.
The Tigray conflict has opened the Pandora jar. It must be stopped at all costs also through a super partis international armed intervention. The international community cannot rely on any pressures leading TPLF and Abiy to stop this insane war for the simple reason that both sides are fighting for the supremacy of the country and will not stop until the last of the enemies is downed like a dog. ”Explains an Amhara professor who lives in Kampala protected by anonymity for fear of retaliation against his family members who remained in Ethiopia.
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