The picture in Ethiopia’s rebel region is unclear as both sides claim victory

Both sides in Ethiopia’s raging internal conflict claimed military success on Wednesday, creating a muddy picture of the fighting, even as the government promised it would soon be over.

Behind the rivalry, the region’s refugee crisis intensified when Sudan reported that 36,000 people had now fled across its borders to escape the violence.

A communications shutdown in Tigray, where Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered military operations on November 4, has made it difficult to get a clear picture of the hostilities now entering its third week.

“We are inflicting heavy defeats on all fronts against the forces that came to attack us,” Tigrayan leader Debretsion Gebremichael said in a statement referring to federal forces.

“I urge all the Tigrayan people to go out en masse to drive out the invaders,” he added.

But army chief Berhanu Jula said his forces “won on all fronts” and Tigray’s Popular Liberation Front (TPLF) was “in a desperate state.”

“The TPLF’s plan to drag Ethiopia into the civil war and tear it down has failed. It is currently in a desperate situation because it is surrounded,” Berhanu said.

The federal police announced late Wednesday the arrest warrant for 76 army officers, some retired, accused of conspiring with the TPLF and “committing treason”.

Abiy, last year’s winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, announced the military campaign in Tigray on November 4, saying it was in response to TPLF attacks on federal military camps.

It dramatically escalated his long-running battle with the TPLF, an organization that dominated Ethiopian politics for nearly three decades before Abiy took office in 2018.

Tensions rose after Tigray held his own election in September – despite a nationwide ban on coronavirus voting – and tried to brand Abiy an illegal ruler.

Hospital under load

The number of Ethiopians fleeing the fighting has reached 36,000, the Sudanese Refugee Commission said, increasing its previous figure, issued on Tuesday, to 27,000.

A new camp will be built in Umm Tinetba in the state of Gedaref to cope with the influx, Commissioner Abdulla Soliman told AFP.

The UN has warned of a “complete humanitarian crisis” when aid organizations negotiate with the government to gain full access to Tigray.

Hundreds of fighters are said to have died, but the number of accidents so far is rough estimates.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said on Wednesday that the Ethiopian Red Cross had “transported hundreds of people injured in areas affected by the clashes.”

The organization said hospitals in Tigray and the neighboring Amhara region “urgently need hospital beds, mattresses, blankets and sheets.”

A hospital in the Amhara city of Gondar “has received a large number of critically injured patients with more than 400 treated so far at the facility,” the ICRC said.

“Last” press

Abiy has resisted international pressure to end hostilities.

He says mediation can only take place when the TPLF is disarmed and its leaders arrested.

Demeke Mekonnen, Ethiopia’s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, has conveyed that message to regional leaders this week, with stops in Uganda, Kenya and Rwanda.

On Tuesday, Abiy announced that “in the coming days, the final law enforcement activities will be done.”

His government later claimed that he was marching towards the regional capital, Mekele, and keeping the city of Mehoni 125 kilometers south.

Clashes were reported for a second day on Wednesday in the northern city of Shire, where camps are holding thousands of Eritrean refugees.

A senior Tigrayan official, Wondimu Asamnew, said in an email that the Tigrayan forces “have taken a defensive stance on all fronts”.

Wondimu said that in addition to the Ethiopian militia, TPLF-oriented forces faced militias from the Amhara region, south of Tigray, and soldiers from Ethiopia’s neighbor to northern Eritrea, with fighting spouting into Eritrean territory.

Ethiopia has denied that the TPLF claims that Eritrean soldiers are directly involved in the conflict.

Over the weekend, the TPLF fired rockets at the airport in the Eritrean capital Asmara, which increased fears that the Ethiopian conflict could drag on in the wider region of the Horn of Africa.

Federal forces say they already control Tigray’s western zone, which saw heavy fighting at the start of the conflict.

The government has accused the TPLF of destroying four bridges leading into Mekele.

In an interview with the German TV network DW on Tuesday, Defense Minister Kenea Yadeta said the conflict would end “probably in less than 10 to 15 days.”

But diplomats say it is far from clear that federal forces can secure a quick victory, especially as fighting moves from the lowlands to more mountainous terrain.

The TPLF has significant military assets and an estimated 250,000 troops, including a paramilitary force and local militia.

Ethiopia’s military is estimated at 150,000 troops, a figure that does not include special forces and militias.