Rebel forces in Ethiopia's Tigray launch new offensive

·4-min read

Fighting erupted Tuesday between rival forces in a refugee camp in Ethiopia's war-hit Tigray, after local rebels launched a new offensive to reclaim towns and territory in the region.

A spokesman for the Tigrayan forces told AFP they had seized Alamata, the main town in southern Tigray, in a fresh assault two weeks after the federal government declared a unilateral ceasefire in the face of stunning rebel advances.

Getachew Reda said fighting was also taking place in western Tigray, an area where the United States has raised concerns about ethnic cleansing, and where clashes inside a refugee camp on Tuesday sent people fleeing.

The rebel claims could not be independently confirmed as communications were largely down in the area. An Ethiopian military spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

The Tigray Defence Forces (TDF) last month swept across parts of Tigray and seized its capital Mekele, a turning point in the brutal eight-month conflict.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019, sent troops into Tigray last November after accusing the region's once-dominant ruling party of orchestrating attacks on Ethiopian military bases.

The fighting -- marked by massacres and sexual violence, and the involvement of Eritrean and regional forces alongside Ethiopia's national army -- has killed thousands and the UN says hundreds of thousands face famine.

- 'Every square inch' -

The top UN rights body called Tuesday for an immediate end to all violations in Tigray and for Eritrean troops to leave, drawing a sharp rebuke from Addis Ababa and Asmara.

Security forces and officials from the neighbouring Amhara region had moved in to southern and western Tigray in November to support Ethiopian troops after Tigrayan forces cleared out during the war's early phase.

"We promised to liberate every square inch of Tigray," Getachew said, announcing the new offensive launched Monday.

The TDF fighters "were able to absolutely rout federal defence forces and Amhara special forces divisions", he said, claiming they had taken most of southern Tigray including Alamata.

Getachew said the TDF was "in hot pursuit" of pro-government forces, adding: "We don't want to give them a chance to regroup."

- Refugees in crossfire -

A UN source reported the sound of artillery near the western Tigray town of Emba Madre and fighting around Mai Tsebri, 13 kilometres (eight miles) away.

A local government office in Amhara had called Monday for a "mass mobilisation" of people with arms and food to Mai Tsebri.

Humanitarian sources told AFP fighting also broke out inside the nearby Mai Aini camp housing Eritrean refugees, with Tigrayan rebels exchanging fire with Ethiopian soldiers and their allies in Amharan special forces.

By midday the fighting seemed to have subsided, with Tigrayan forces controlling much of the area, the source said. There was no word on casualties, but some refugees had fled southward towards Amhara.

The UNHCR's Ethiopia office said it was seeking assurances that refugees in the warzone would be protected.

It is not the first time these Eritreans, pre-war refugees who fled the regime in their homeland, have been caught up in the conflict.

Two camps located further north, near the border with Eritrea, were destroyed earlier in the war, forcing tens of thousands to flee.

"The violence and intimidation of Eritrean refugees must stop," said UNHCR chief Filippo Grandi.

The rebel offensive was launched two days after results showed Abiy won by a landslide in June elections that went ahead despite the conflict.

The TDF described its seizure of Mekele and most of Tigray as a major victory, while Abiy and Ethiopian officials characterised their troop withdrawal as a strategic move.

Rebel leaders had initially branded the ceasefire a "joke" but then said they accepted it "in principle" while demanding the withdrawal from the region of Eritrean and Amhara forces.

- US warning -

The war has badly damaged Abiy's international standing, and Western powers have demanded the ceasefire be accompanied by unfettered aid access.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell urged member states Monday to consider sanctions, warning that a major humanitarian disaster loomed.

The World Food Programme said Monday that a 50-truck convoy carrying 900 tonnes of supplies had arrived in Mekele but was far from enough to help the hunger-stricken region.

"We need double this number of trucks arriving daily, and we need them to take two days to reach Mekele instead of the four-day journey this time if we are to reach the millions of people in need of life-saving assistance," said WFP emergency coordinator Tommy Thompson.

The US, a traditional ally of Ethiopia, reiterated Monday its finding that "acts of ethnic cleansing" had taken place in western Tigray, and warned that any effort to redraw internal boundaries by force was "unacceptable."

Tigrayan officials in March accused Amharan forces of expelling thousands of people from fertile lands in western Tigray -- a part of the region that ethnic Amharas claim rightfully belongs to them, and was annexed illegally.


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