NAIROBI, KENYA (AP) — Ethiopia moved on Saturday to replace the leadership of the country’s defiant northern Tigray region, where deadly clashes between regional and federal government forces are fuelling fears the major African power is sliding into civil war. Tigray’s leader told the African Union (AU) that the federal government was planning a “full-fledged military offensive”.
Neither side appeared ready for the dialogue that experts say is needed to avert disaster in one of the world’s most strategic yet vulnerable regions, the Horn of Africa.
The upper house of Parliament, the House of Federation, voted to set up an interim administration, giving Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed the power to carry out measures against a Tigray leadership his government regards as illegal. They include appointing officials and facilitating elections.
The prime minister, who won the Nobel Peace Prize last year, asserted that “criminal elements cannot escape the rule of law under the guise of seeking reconciliation and a call for dialogue”.
Experts and diplomats are watching in dismay as the two heavily armed forces clash. Observers warn that a civil war in Ethiopia, Africa’s second most populous country with 110 million people, could suck in or destabilise neighbours such as Sudan, Eritrea and Somalia.
“It’s a very, very bad situation,” Head of Mission for aid group Doctors Without Borders in Ethiopia Audrey Van der Schoot told The Associated Press. Heavy shelling resumed on Saturday morning, for the first time since Wednesday, near the group’s outpost in the Amhara region by the Tigray border. It was so close, Van der Schoot could hear it over the phone.
The clinic has seen six dead so far and some 60 wounded, all combatants from Tigray and Amhara, she said, adding that shelling came from both sides.
A statement posted on the Facebook page of the Tigray government, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, asserted that it will win the “justified” war, adding that “a fighter will not negotiate with its enemies”.
In a letter to the AU Chairman, South Africa’s President, Tigray leader Debretsion Gebremichael alleged that Ethiopia’s federal government and neighbouring Eritrea have mobilised their forces near the Tigray border “with the intention of launching a full-fledged military offensive”.
The letter dated on Friday, seen by The Associated Press, called Abiy’s behaviour “unconstitutional, dictatorial and treasonous”. It said the AU was well-placed to bring parties to dialogue to “avert an all-out civil war”.
The conflict is playing out between former allies in Ethiopia’s ruling coalition who now regard each other as illegal. The TPLF long dominated the country’s military and government before Abiy took office in 2018 and introduced sweeping political reforms that won him the Nobel.