International alarm heightened on Tuesday over the escalation of the war in Ethiopia as Tigrayan rebels claimed to be closing in on the capital Addis Ababa and more foreign nationals were told to leave.
US envoy Jeffrey Feltman spoke of some progress in efforts to reach a diplomatic agreement to end the brutal year-long conflict, but warned that he risked being threatened by “alarming developments” on the ground.
The United Nations said it had ordered the immediate evacuation of relatives of international staff, while France became the latest Western government to tell its citizens to leave Ethiopia.
The rebel Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) claimed this week that it had seized a city just 220 kilometers (135 miles) from the capital, although claims on the battlefield are difficult to verify due to a communications outage.
On Monday, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed promised that he would go to the front lines to lead 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 just two years ago received the Nobel Peace Prize for reaching a peace agreement with neighboring Eritrea.
Thousands of people have died since fighting broke out in November 2020, sparking a desperate humanitarian crisis that, according to the UN, has left hundreds of thousands on the brink of famine and displaced more than two million.
Recent events cast doubt on hopes of ending the conflict, which has fueled fears that it could sow further instability in the Horn of Africa region.
“While there is incipient progress, it risks being overtaken by military escalation on both sides,” Feltman said in Ethiopia this week together with his African Union counterpart Olusegun Obasanjo to negotiate a ceasefire.
‘Abundance of caution’
The fight to evacuate the foreigners continued, three weeks after the government declared a state of emergency and ordered residents to prepare to defend the capital.
A UN internal security order seen by AFP said that the relatives of international personnel should be evacuated before November 25.
“Given the security situation in the country and as a precaution, the United Nations has decided to reduce its footprint in the country by temporarily relocating all eligible dependents,” said UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric, putting the number of people affected at a few few hundred.
France also recommended that its citizens leave “without delay”, following similar warnings from the United States and the United Kingdom.
But officials in Addis Ababa told diplomats in a briefing that security forces were working to keep the city safe.
“The propaganda and terror discourse broadcast by Western media totally contradicts the peaceful state of the city on the ground, so the diplomatic community should not feel any concern or fear,” said Kenea Yadeta, Addis Director of Peace and Security. Abeba. Office.
The conflict erupted when Abiy sent troops to the northernmost region of Tigray to overthrow the TPLF after months of intense tensions with the party that had dominated national politics for three decades before he assumed power in 2018.
Abiy said the move was in response to TPLF attacks on federal army camps and promised a quick victory, but by the end of June the rebels had retaken most of Tigray, including its capital, Mekele.
Since then, the TPLF has penetrated the neighboring Afar and Amhara regions and joined forces with several other groups, including the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA).
Earlier this week, the TPLF claimed control of Shewa Robit, just 220 kilometers northeast of Addis Ababa by road.
The government has not responded to requests about the status of the city.
Some TPLF fighters were also believed to have reached Debre Sina, some 30 kilometers closer to Addis Ababa, diplomats briefed on the security situation said.
‘Stand up for your country’
In Pretoria, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa and his Kenyan counterpart Uhuru Kenyatta joined calls for parties to the conflict to commit to an immediate ceasefire.
But Abiy himself has questioned the prospects for a peaceful solution.
“Starting tomorrow, I will mobilize to the front to lead the defense forces,” he said in a statement Monday.
“Those who want to be among the Ethiopian children who will be hailed by history, stand up today for your country. Let us meet at the front.”
Meanwhile, the United Nations on Tuesday launched a major campaign to deliver food aid to two cities in northern Ethiopia despite the looting of warehouses.
The UN World Food Program said the operation will serve more than 450,000 people over the next two weeks in the cities of Kombolcha and Dessie, which are at a strategic crossroads on the main road to Addis Ababa.