NAIROBI, Kenya – The conflict in northern Ethiopia has escalated dramatically in recent days as Ethiopian forces began a radical offensive in a bid to reverse recent gains by Tigrayan rebels, Western officials and Tigrayan leaders said. .
UN officials said the attack will 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 starving Tigrayans eat leaves to survive.
Senior Western officials widely confirmed Tigrayan’s accounts that the assault, which had been anticipated 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 communications blockade imposed by the government means that few details about the fighting can be independently confirmed. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who was sworn in for a second term last week, has declined to comment in recent days.
His spokesman did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.
Talking on the phone Gen. Tsadkan Gebretensae, a member of the central command of the Tigray forces and its chief strategist, said Ethiopian forces had started the military operation on Friday with a bombardment of Tigrayan positions using fighter jets, artillery and drones.
On Monday, the Ethiopians switched to a ground offensive led by thousands of fighters, to face a counter-offensive from Tigray, he said.
“The enemy has been preparing for months, and so have we,” said General Tsadkan, who previously commanded Ethiopia’s armed forces for a decade. He predicted that the coming battle would be a “watershed moment” for the country.
“The ramifications will be military, political and diplomatic,” he said. “I don’t think this is a long fight, a matter of days, probably weeks.”
For Abiy, winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, the offensive is an effort to seize control of a brutal 11-month war that has ruined his reputation as a peacemaker and slipped out of their control as the fighting spread to new areas in recent months.
Abiy appears increasingly isolated from international support as the United States threatens him with the prospect of sanctions and clashes with the UN leadership. Only a few African leaders have continued to support him.
This month, Ethiopia expelled He accused seven senior UN officials of “meddling” in the nation’s internal affairs and diverting aid to the Tigrayan rebels. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres denied those charges in unusually sharp language and told Mr. Abiy that the expulsions had no legal basis.
Comparing the situation to the devastating famine in Somalia in 2011, Guterres said that warned Mr. Abiy that Ethiopia’s restrictions on aid delivery had created a humanitarian crisis that was “spiraling out of control”.
More than 5 million Tigrayans need urgent help and at least 400,000 are in famine, says the UN. But barely a tenth of the required aid has reached them because Ethiopia has blocked routes to the region, authorities said.
The Biden government has tried to force Mr. Abiy and the Tigrayans into peace talks by threatening sanctions against “officials and entities” who block humanitarian aid and refuse to stop fighting.
However, with his latest attack, Abiy seems to be betting that he 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 that he has described as “cancer” and “weeds.”
A Western official said Abiy had acquired new drones built in Iran, Turkey and China, although it is unclear who supplied them to Ethiopia. Websites that track international air traffic have logged dozens of cargo flights from the United Arab Emirates, and a handful from Iran, on Ethiopian air force bases in the past six weeks.
Tigrayan Leaders they have accused UAE to send armed drones to assist Mr. Abiy during the first weeks of the war last November; Emirati officials have declined to comment. The airstrikes wiped out most of Tigray’s artillery and forced his troops to retreat to the remote field.
A bigger question now is whether Eritrea will rejoin Mr. Abiy’s side. Eritrean troops provided crucial support in the first phase of the war, until June, and faced many of the worst accusations of atrocities against the civilian population. Eritreans are currently occupying Humera, a city in western Tigray, and some have deployed to Amhara, two Western officials said.
But it is unclear if they are participating in the latest fighting.
The Tigrayan forces scored a series of surprise wins which forced Ethiopian forces out of Tigray. In July, the Tigrayans entered the Amhara region, where fighting has centered ever since.
A long-running dispute between Amhara and Tigray over a disputed strip of land drew Amhara militias into the fight against Tigray last November. The Tigrayans say those fighters are also taking part in the latest offensives, along with regular Ethiopian troops and youth from across Ethiopia drawn by Abiy’s call for recruits over the summer.
But General Tsadkan, the Tigray commander, said he viewed Eritrea’s autocratic leader Isaias Afwerki, who is a longtime enemy of the Tigrayans, as their greatest threat.
“Isaías and his army are the main saboteurs in the region,” he said. “If the international community is seriously seeking a peaceful solution, a settlement will not be achieved without taking care of Isaías.”
Both sides face intense pressure. The Tigrayans, surrounded by enemies, risk running out of supplies soon. Abiy is battling a sharp economic downturn that has led to skyrocketing food prices and a shortage of foreign exchange, which US sanctions could soon worsen.
Ethiopian Airlines, Africa’s largest airline and the flagship of Ethiopia’s economic success, last week denied a CNN report that its plane had been used to send weapons and soldiers for war in Tigray.
On Tuesday, US Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken met with newly appointed African Union envoy to Ethiopia, former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, to discuss the crisis.
Some African leaders support Mr. Abiy. Six heads of state, mostly from the region, attended his inauguration celebrations in Addis Ababa last week. But several of the congratulatory speeches included expressions of growing concern and urged Abiy to enter into peace talks.
“Ethiopia is our mother,” said President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya. “If our mother is not at peace, neither can the family be at peace.”
Criticism of Mr. Abiy in the West is increasingly strident. Last week a test by Mark Lowcock, a former British diplomat and until recently UN humanitarian chief, accused Mr Abiy of attempting to starve the people of Tigray “either to subjugate them or to cease to exist” and warned that he risked causing the collapse of your country.
“Abiy’s action plan cannot work,” Lowcock wrote, citing what he said was a growing consensus of experts. “If he tries and fails to destroy Tigray, he himself will be destroyed. If it is successful, it will never survive the reaction that will follow. “