International alarm mounted on Tuesday over the escalating war in Ethiopia as Tigrayan rebels said they were edging closer to the capital, Addis Ababa, and more foreign citizens were told to leave.
The US envoy Jeffrey Feltman spoke of some progress in efforts to reach a diplomatic settlement to end the year-long conflict but said it risked being jeopardised by “upsetting 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 of international staff, according to an internal document seen by AFP on Tuesday.
The rebel Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) said this week it had taken a town just 135 miles (220km) from the capital, although the claims are hard to verify because of a communications blackout.
On Monday, the chief minister, Abiy Ahmed, said he would head to the battlefront to rule his soldiers 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 saving Ethiopia,” said Abiy, who only two years ago was awarded the Nobel peace prize for securing a peace deal with neighbouring Eritrea.
The latest developments cast doubt on hopes of a peaceful solution to the conflict, despite frantic diplomatic efforts, led by the African Union, to obtain a ceasefire.
Thousands of people have been killed since the fighting erupted 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 famine, and displaced more than 2 million.
“While there’s some nascent progress, that is highly at risk of being outpaced 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 scramble to evacuate foreigners was continuing, 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 the UK have issued similar advisories in recent weeks.
But officials in the capital told diplomats that security forces, including youth groups, were working to ensure the city’s safety. “The propaganda and terror talk being disseminated by the western media fully contradicts the peaceful state of the city on the ground, so the diplomatic community shouldn’t feel any worry or fear,” said Kenea Yadeta, head of the Addis Ababa peace and security bureau.
The conflict erupted when Abiy sent troops into the northern Tigray vicinity to topple the TPLF after months of tensions with the party, which had dominated national politics for three decades before he took strength in 2018.
Abiy said this was in response to TPLF attacks on federal army camps and promised a rapid victory, but by late June the rebels had retaken most of Tigray, including its capital, Mekelle. Since then the TPLF has pushed into the neighbouring regions of Afar and Amhara, and earlier this week claimed control of Shewa Robit, just 140 miles north-east of Addis Ababa by road.
The government has not responded to questions about who was controlling the town.
Some TPLF fighters were also believed to have reached Debre Sina, about 19 miles closer to Addis Ababa, diplomats said.
In Pretoria, the South African president, Cyril Ramaphosa, and his Kenyan style, Uhuru Kenyatta, additional their voices to calls for the two sides to commit to an immediate ceasefire.
But Abiy has cast doubt on the prospects for a peaceful solution. “Starting tomorrow, I will mobilise to the front to rule the defence forces,” he said on Monday. “Those who want to be among the Ethiopian children who will be hailed by history, rise up for your country today. Let’s meet at the front.”
Meanwhile, the UN on Tuesday launched a excursion to bring food aid to two towns in northern Ethiopia, despite the looting of warehouses. The UN’s World Food Programme said the “major food assistance operation” would serve more than 450,000 people during the next two weeks in the Amhara towns of Kombolcha and Dessie, which lie at a strategic crossroads on the main highway to Addis Ababa.
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