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Heavy fighting broke out in Ethiopia’s Tigray region on Wednesday, diplomatic sources said, after the prime minister launched military operations in response to what he said was an attack on federal troops.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said Wednesday he had ordered a military response to an “attack” by the ruling party of the restive Tigray region on a camp housing federal troops.

The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) “has attacked a military camp” in the region and “tried to loot” military assets, Abiy said in a post on Facebook and Twitter.

“Our defence forces… have been ordered to carry out their mission to save the country. The final point of the red line has been crossed. Force is being used as the last measure to save the people and the country,” he said.

Details on the alleged attack in Tigray were not immediately available, and calls to the northern region were not going through.

Internet monitoring group Netblocks reported that internet appeared to have been cut in Tigray as of 1am local time (2200 GMT).Tigray region

It was also not immediately clear what form the federal military response might take, though analysts and diplomats have been warning for weeks that the standoff between the federal government and the TPLF could spill over into violence.

The TPLF dominated politics in Africa’s second most populous country for nearly three decades before Abiy came to power in 2018 on the strength of anti-government protests.

Under Abiy, winner of last year’s Nobel Peace Prize, Tigrayan leaders have complained of being unfairly targeted in corruption prosecutions, removed from top positions and broadly scapegoated for the country’s woes.

Ethiopia was due to hold national elections in August, but the country’s poll body ruled in March that all voting would need to be postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Lawmakers then voted to extend officials’ mandates — which would have expired in early October — but Tigrayan leaders rejected this and went ahead with regional elections in September that Abiy’s government deemed illegal.

Now each side sees the other as illegitimate, and federal lawmakers have ruled Abiy’s government should cut off contact with — and funding to — Tigray’s leadership.

In recent days tensions have risen over who controls federal military assets in Tigray.

The region is home to a large portion of federal military personnel and equipment, a legacy of Ethiopia’s brutal 1998-2000 border war with Eritrea, its northern neighbour.

Last week Tigray blocked a general appointed by Abiy from assuming a new posting, saying Abiy no longer had the authority to make such moves.

-‘Playing with fire’-

Tigrayan officials have said in recent days they would not initiate a military conflict.

“We will never be the first to shoot nor the first to blink,” Getachew Reda, a senior member of the TPLF, told AFP last week.

On Tuesday night, hours before Abiy’s announcement, Wondimu Asamnew, another senior Tigrayan official, told AFP the federal government was amassing troops on the southern border of Tigray — a claim that could not be independently verified.

“I think when it comes to military mobilisation, it’s not child’s play. It can trigger all-out war… what they are doing is playing with fire,” Wondimu said.

“A small spark can ignite the whole region. So I think we are on the alert and I can assure you we are capable of defending ourselves.”

Network data from the NetBlocks internet observatory confirm that internet has been cut regionally in Ethiopia from 1 a.m. Wednesday 4 November 2020 local time. Metrics corroborate widespread reports of a data and telephony blackout in the northern region of Tigray, which are ongoing at the time of writing.

Minutes after the network disruption was registered by the observatory, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced via his verified Twitter and Facebook accounts that a “red line” had been crossed and that military action was being taken to “save the country” from restive groups.

The new telecommunications blackout is understood to be the latest in a series of internet shutdowns imposed by the central government of Ethiopia. Measures imposed during security operations have limited news coverage and visibility around incidents on the ground during calls for autonomy and independence from the federal system. Political reforms promised by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed have largely stalled amid the collapse of security and killings fueled by ethnic divisions since 2018.

NetBlocks has tracked national and regional internet shutdowns imposed by the government of Ethiopia including a multi-week internet shutdown that came into effect in June 2020 after the killing of activist-singer Hachalu Hundessa, and a similar blackout in 2019 following an alleged coup attempt in the Amhara region.


Heavy fighting broke out in Ethiopia’s Tigray region on Wednesday, diplomatic sources said, after the prime minister launched military operations in response to what he said was an attack on federal troops.

In September, Tigray held regional elections in defiance of the federal government, which called the vote “illegal”. The row has escalated in recent days with both sides accusing each other of plotting a military conflict.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s office said that early on Wednesday, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) tried to steal artillery and other equipment from federal forces stationed there.

“The last red line has been crossed with this morning’s attacks and the federal government is therefore forced into a military confrontation,” it said, adding that the aim was to prevent instability engulfing the country and region.

The prime minister’s spokesman Billene Seyoum told Reuters later that military operations in Tigray had commenced, without elaborating.

Two diplomatic sources in Addis Ababa said heavy fighting, including artillery fire, had broken out in the northern region, which borders Eritrea.

Tigray’s local government said the Northern Command of the federal military, which is stationed in the region, had defected to its side, a statement which Billene described as “false information”.

The prime minister’s office said the federal government had declared a six-month state of emergency in Tigray to be overseen by the chief of staff of the armed forces.

The internet was shut down in the region, internet access monitor NetBlocks said, confirming reports that authorities had shut down telephone and internet services.

Tigrayans dominated Ethiopian politics after guerrilla fighters ousted a Marxist dictator in 1991, but their influence has waned under Abiy. Last year, the TPLF quit his ruling coalition.

Since Abiy came to power in 2018, many senior Tigrayan officials have been detained, fired or sidelined, in what the federal government describes as a clamp-down on corruption but Tigrayans see as a means to quell dissent.

Tigray population makes up 5% of Ethiopia’s 109 million people, but it is wealthier and more influential than many other, larger regions.

 

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