Tigray War - 2020
Fighting broke out in Ethiopia in November 2020 when the country’s government launched an operation against the northern region of Tigray and its ruling faction, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). An alleged attack on a federal government military base, attributed to the TPLF, was used as pretext for the offensive. Tigray’s authorities, however, denied that such an attack took place. The TPLF used to rule the whole country for years, yet was forced to step down in 2018 after prolonged unrest that propped incumbent Ethiopia’s PM Abiy Ahmed into power.
Ethiopia’s PM Abiy Ahmed came in for a storm of international criticism over the ongoing offensive against Tigray. The offensive, which Abiy promised to be carried out in a “limited” fashion and to restore the “rule of law” to Tigray, has already resulted in hundreds of dead and in mass displacement, while the rebellious region has repeatedly accused the central government of launching indiscriminate airstrikes on civilian targets.
The Tigray Independence Party, which was formed in June 2020, said full secession from Ethiopia is ultimate goal. Leaders in the northern region of Tigray warned in October 2020 they would stop recognizing the federal government in Addis Ababa. Leaders of Ethiopia’s Tigray region stepped up their feud with the federal government led by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. They said they would no longer recognize the administration in the capital, Addis Ababa, or its laws. The warning came after the electoral commission delayed elections due in August 2020 because of the coronavirus emergency. Tigray defied the federal government’s postponement order and went ahead with local elections, a move Abiy called “illegal”. The argument is raising concerns Tigray’s leaders were laying the groundwork for the creation of a breakaway state.
Polls opened in Ethiopia's northern Tigray region on 30 September 2020, in defiance of the federal government. The ballot is a direct challenge to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who postponed general elections earlier this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Tigray Independence Party, which came into existence after Ahmed's 2018 election, is pushing to breakaway from Ethiopia. The regional vote has rattled the government of Prime Minister Abiy as he attempts to transition the country into a new era of greater openness.
The Tigray region, which led a multi-party government coalition for 27 years prior to Abiy coming to power, staunchly opposed the government’s decision in March 2020 to postpone the national election because of the coronavirus. It has called any attempt to prevent its regional vote from going ahead “declaration of war.” But critics of the Tigray region’s push for elections say the country’s former elite are simply using the vote to further their own interests in national politics and vent frustration they are no longer in power.
In October, the Tigrayan leadership defied Abiy Ahmed once again when it rejected a reshuffle of the military's Northern Command, one of four regional commands of the Ethiopian armed forces. That particular command was vital during the 1998 - 2008 Ethiopia-Eritrea war. By some accounts more than half of Ethiopia's Defense Forces personnel and military hardware remain stationed in the Northern Command, on the front liens with Eritrea. The Tigray state said that the Northern Command, whose leadership is largely Tigrean, defected to its side. The claim was dismissed by Ahmed's spokesman, Billene Seyoum as “false information”.
Abiy accused the TPLF of starting the conflict by attacking a federal military base and defying his authority, while the Tigrayans say his two-year rule has persecuted them. "The last red line has been crossed," Abiy declared in a televised address on 04 November 2020, warning that "the end is near" for the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLG), which rules Tigray. Clashes began on 4 November, with government claims of an ambush by regional forces on the federal Northern Command base near Tigray’s capital Mekelle. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s office said that early on 04 November 2020 the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) tried to steal artillery and other equipment from federal forces stationed there. Heavy fighting broke out in Ethiopia’s Tigray region on 04 November 2020 after the prime minister launched military operations.
The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which rules the mountainous northern state of more than 5 million people, announced a local state of emergency against what it termed an “invasion by outsiders”. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said 04 November 2020 the army succeeded in containing a rebel attack in the northern Tigray region after it was deployed to quell the uprising by the TPLF that sparked fears of a civil war. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed vowed further air strikes after jets bombed the northern Tigray region amid reports that Tigrayan forces had seized control of federal military sites and weapons. The story about TPLF attempt to take control of the northern command post by launching an attack from within the army command convinced the majority of Ethiopians.
The central government claimed on 04 November 2020 that the TPLF had seized artillery systems and other equipment from ENDF bases around Mekele. The TPLF claimed that the Northern Command has deserted and resolved to fight the Federal government along with the forces of Tigray regional state. The government of Tigray National Regional State expressed that commanders and members of the Northern Command of the Ethiopian National Defense Force decided to stand by the people and government of Tigray, opposing the regime at the center. The Tigray Regional government press release stated: "the government of Tigray Regional State has decided to work in collaboration with commanders and members of Northern Command to oppose and avoid the worst possible scenario by this authoritarian and dictatorial regime."
On 06 November 2020, Abiy announced that the Ethiopian Air Force (ETAF) had conducted airstrikes against TPLF-aligned forces in the Tigray Region with long-range 'rocket launchers' in areas around the regional capital Mekele on November 5, after they were seized by TPLF-aligned forces. Abiy did not specify what type of rocket systems had been destroyed in the airstrikes but stated that they had a range of around 300km (185 miles), similar to the Scud.
Tigrayan forces are in control of the federal military’s Northern Command headquarters in the city of Mekelle and have seized “heavy weapons” from several of its depots, according to a United Nations internal security report dated 06 November 2020 and seen by Reuters.
“Our operation aims to end the impunity that has prevailed for far too long and hold accountable individuals and groups under the laws of the land,” Abiy said 07 November 2020. Ethiopia’s parliament voted to approve the formation of an interim government for the Tigray region as fighting continued and fears of all-out war escalated. Ethiopia’s federal government said the interim administration will “appoint officials, ensure the respect for rule of law, approve the region’s budget and facilitate the process of conducting elections”. The house of federation’s decision was based on a legal provision allowing federal intervention in a region deemed to have “violated the constitution and endangered the constitutional system”.
The Tigray People’s Liberation Front, said it will win the “justified” war, and added “a fighter will not negotiate with its enemies”. It added “Tigray’s people are now armed with modern weaponry that could reach the seat of the infidels,”, an apparent reference to Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa. Tigrayan leader Debretsion Gebremichael said his troops had seized "almost all" of the weaponry at the Command.
General Bacha Debele, who was on early retirement, apparently on political grounds during the time when TPLF dominated the federal government, was recently recalled by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed along with two other generals(General Abebaw Tadesse and General Yohannes Gebremeskel ) who were also on early retirement. General Bacha was sent on a mission, along with General Abebaw Tadesse, to the northern front to investigate as to what happened in the northern front. He returned to the capital Addis Ababa and had a press statement 10 NOvember 2020. He said TPLF used some Tigrigna speaking members of the northern command to plan operation, cut communication with the higher defense command, and attacked the army.
On November 10, 2020 the Ethiopian National Defence Force announced a better operational readiness of the military units in the Northern Command stationed in areas extending from Shiraro to Zalanbessa, Tigray Region. Lieutenant General Bacha Debele said that he has physically observed preparations made by the military contingents in Northern Command of the Defence Force, and witnessed better preparations and readiness of the military. Lt Gen Bacha Debele said that the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) Shene Group was also fighting the federal military forces in support of the Tigray Special Force in areas including Zalanbessa, Shiraro, Rama, Tsorena and other places.
By 12 November 2020 the fighting was still going on between ground troops on both sides, with air strikes targeting fuel and arms depots that have caused significant casualties on both sides. The government said it will not stop the operation until it reaches its objectives of ensuring that TPLF are disarmed, their leadership brought to justice and any fugitives apprehended.
The operation might be further extended, according to William Davison, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group. “The existing strong regional security apparatus in Tigray, combined with the region’s history of resistance and fighting battles, raises the concern that – despite the advantages of the federal government – we might actually see a protracted conflict that could well last weeks and quite possibly months,” Davison told Al Jazeera.
About 15,000 people have reportedly fled from Ethiopia into neighboring Sudan after government troops ramped up an offensive against local forces in the northern state of Tigray. Amnesty International reported mass killings of civilians, quoting witnesses as saying several hundred people were killed with machetes and cutting tools known as billhooks.
Nizar Manek and Mohamed Kheir Omer wrote in Foregn Policy on 14 November 2020 that "the TPLF has taken control of half the soldiers from the five divisions of the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) Northern Command that remain in Tigray—meaning it has gained 15,000 soldiers... the seizure of Ethiopian military hardware and equipment has heightened the importance of logistical supplies for the TPLF... soldiers in divisions of the ENDF Northern Command in Tigray have in the past week split into three groups: half aligned with the TPLF, one-quarter—Abiy loyalists and mostly ethnic Amhara officers—fled into Eritrea, and the rest refused to fight against the federal army and have been contained in barracks."
Leaders of Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region on 14 November 2020 claimed rocket attacks on two airports in a nearby state in Ethiopia and threatened to strike neighboring Eritrea, raising fears that the escalating conflict could spread. Two airports in Amhara state were targeted with one of the rockets hitting the airport in Gondar, partially damaging it, said Awoke Worku, spokesperson for Gondar central zone. A second projectile fired simultaneously landed just outside of the airport at Bahir Dar. The distance between Mekelle and Gondar is 239 km, while t distance between Mekele and Bahir Dar is 310 kilometers.
Tigray acknowledged it launched strikes on an airport located in Asmara, the capital of neighboring Eritrea on 14 November 2020, accusing that country of aiding Ethiopia's central government in its assault on the region. Distance between Mekele and Asmara is 213 kilometers. Tigray's President Debretsion Gebremichael acknowledged the attack on 15 November 2020, confirming earlier reports of the strike. At least two projectiles hit Asmara’s airport late on Saturday, yet it was not immediately clear what, if any, damage was inflicted. Gebremichael said the attack was retaliation for Eritrea’s alleged involvement in the Ethiopian infighting. The president claimed the region has faced “16 divisions” of Eritrean forces “on several fronts” for the past few days.
November 15, 2020 Ethiopia’s State of Emergency Fact Check said Foreign Policy Magazine’s article about the "law enforcement" operation in Ethiopia is “gross misrepresentation” of facts. “The piece misses the essential point: TPLF’s calculation in triggering an armed confrontation with the Federal Government is the belief that through an internationally brokered deal and appeal to the highly publicized appeal to the international community, it will be able to secure immunity for its past misdeeds and a power sharing deal that will grant it a position at the center, which exceeds the limited support it enjoys in a country with a population of 110 million.”
“It seems that large elements of the Northern Command leadership, probably the Tigrayan officers, have sided with the regional government or otherwise come under the regional government command after a forceful takeover, and this includes appropriating heavy weaponry,” said William Davison, an Ethiopia expert at the International Crisis Group. “The federal intervention through the Amhara region into southwest Tigray – with some participation of Amhara regular regional security forces and irregular Amhara forces at least around the border areas of western Tigray that are claimed by Amhara factions – has already significantly exacerbated this situation,” Davison said. “If Amhara factions do use the federal intervention in Tigray to try and press home territorial claims, that would make the conflict even more entrenched.”
Ethiopian government troops will soon launch a "final and crucial" offensive in the country's northern Tigray region after security forces there failed to respond to a deadline to surrender, Prime Minister Abiy said on 17 November 2020. "The three-day deadline given for Tigray special forces and the greedy junta to surrender themselves has expired today," Abiy said in a statement. "Now the deadline has expired so that the final and crucial law enforcement operation will be conducted in the coming days," he added. Ethiopia aim to end the final operation within seven days, Ethiopian Defense Minister Kenea Yadeta said. He stated the operation will end once the TPLF is "under control" and "willing to surrender."
The TPLF refused on 18 November 2020 to surrender to federal troops, claiming they were winning: Tigray is now a hell to its enemies,” they said in a statement on the two-week offensive against them. “The people of Tigray will never kneel” The Tigrayan statement added “The wider world will soon testify the amazing victories achieved by the people and government of Tigray ... Attempting to rule the people of Tigray by force is like walking on a burning flame … Tigray will be the graveyard of dictators and aggressors and not their playground.”
By 19 November 2020 Ethiopian federal forces were trying to advance along main roads from the south and the northwest of Mekelle and had got to within approximately 200km (124 miles) of the Tigrayan capital. The leader of the Tigray region said the town of Axum remained in their hands though another locality, Shire, had fallen to federal troops seeking to close in on the state capital, Mekelle. “Shire has fallen three days back but Axum is with us, but there is an army sent to control Axum, but there is a fight,” Debretsion Gebremichael told the Reuters news agency. Information from all sides has been impossible to verify because internet and phone connections to Tigray have been suspended and the government has restricted access to the area.
Tigrayan forces fired rockets into the city of Bahir Dar in the neighboring Amhara region on 20 November 2020 as the federal military closes in on the Tigray capital, Mekelle. The latest attack caused no casualties or damage, the communication's office of the regional Amhara government said. But the attack adds further fuel to the conflict between forces loyal to the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front and Ethiopia's federal government.
The government accused Tigrayan forces of committing “serious crimes” after conflict broke out earlier in the month in the northern region, killing hundreds and sending 30,000 refugees into neighbouring Sudan. The government statement referenced reports of ethnic killings in the town of Mai Kadra, documented by human rights group Amnesty International this week. Survivors of the reported attack told Amnesty researchers militias affiliated with the local Tigray regional government killed many – even hundreds – of civilians, some of whom were ethnic Amharas.
An Ethiopian military spokesman said 22 November 2020 the army planned to surround Mekelle with tanks and may attack it with artillery to end a nearly three-week war, urging civilians to “save themselves”. Military spokesman Colonel Dejene Tsegaye told the Ethiopia Broadcasting Corporation the next phase of the operation was “to encircle Mekelle using tanks”. He said “We want to send a message to the public in Mekelle to save yourselves from any artillery attacks and free yourselves from the junta … After that, there will be no mercy”. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed gave forces in the northern Tigray region a three-day ultimatum to surrender before the military begins an offensive on the rebel-held regional capital of Mekelle. “We urge you to surrender peacefully within 72 hours, recognising that you are at the point of no return,” Abiy said. There was no immediate comment from the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
In Bahir Dar, the capital of the Amhara region south of Tigray, witnesses said on 23 November 2020 that rockets had hit the city, the third time it has been shelled since the fighting began. There was no immediate response from the government, nor any claim of responsibility. The TPLF claimed responsibility for earlier rocket strikes on Bahir Dar and Gondar, another city in Amhara, as well as Eritrea’s capital Asmara.
The claim indicated that at least some elements of the Northern Command had remained loyal to the central government. The federal government denied the claim and said many Tigrayan soldiers were surrendering in line with a 72-hour ultimatum before a threatened attack on the regional capital Mekelle. Getachew Reda, a spokesman for Tigray’s military, told Tigray TV a prestigious army unit – which he termed the 21st mechanised division – had been “completely destroyed” in an assault at Raya-Wahirat led by a former commander of that unit now fighting for the the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The federal army said its forces are within 60km (37 miles) of Mekelle, the seat of the TPLF, ahead of a threatened all-out bombardment of the city.
Tigray's regional state television reported on 25 November 2020 that fighters had destroyed a large force of Eritrean troops moving towards a town 70 km north of Mekelle. It provided no evidence. If confirmed, the presence of Eritrean ground forces would amount to a major escalation of the conflict. Eritrea has denied in the past that it is involved in the fighting. Reuters has not been able to reach Eritrean officials for comment in more than two weeks. The Tigrayan forces, which have been hostile to Eritrea for decades, had fired rockets across the frontier. AMMA news agency, run by authorities in Ethiopia's Amhara region who back Abiy, said that more than 10,000 Tigrayan "junta forces" had been "destroyed." There was no immediate response from the TPLF. A senior diplomat involved in the peace effort said he had not seen evidence of battles on a large enough scale to kill that many fighters, although he could not rule it out.
Abiy Ahmed said on 26 November 2020 that the country's military was in the "final phase" of its operation against fighters in the Tigray region's capital, Mekele. He told civilians to stay at home, warning that a 72-hour deadline for Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) forces to put down their weapons had now passed. The prime minister vowed that religious and historical sites, institutions and residential areas would not be targeted.
Ethiopia Prime Minister announced 29 November 2020 that the army was “fully in control” of Tigray capital, Mekelle. Abiy Ahmed said the capture marked the completion of ENDF’s last phase of the military operation. He said the army secured the release of Northern Command officers held hostage by TPLF. He also said the tasks ahead include rebuilding the city and bringing back residents who fled. But little is known about the current situation on the ground, as the internet and other communications in the area are down. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said health workers in Mekele were struggling with shortages of food and medical supplies including body bags. The TPLF opted to retreat rather than face government troops in a city that, before the conflict, had a population of half a million.
Wukro was hit hard with airstrike bombardment and heavy artillery on 27 November 2020. Satellite imagery suggests a precision attack with one bomb per targeted shelter/garage. The imagery implies exquisite intelligence, knowing which shelters to attack. Not too sure, but the complex is too elaborate for ammo or vehicles, so possibly this is where the missiles were stored.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed''s federal forces took Mekelle, a highland city of 500,000 people, 27 November 2020 with relatively little resistance. The defense force slaimed to have fully liberated Hawzen, al-Najashi, Adikeyeh, Maimesanon, Hewane and Wukro from the junta. The army pushed from Adigrat to Senkata, Al-Najashi, and controlled Wukro. On 30 November 2020 TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael denied reports that he had fled to South Sudan and said his forces had captured some soldiers from neighboring Eritrea around Wukro, about 50 km (30 miles) north of Mekelle.
Wukro (a small city - Population about 60,000 - in the North of Ethiopia), also transliterated Wuqro or Wikro; formerly known as Dongolo,is about 50 km (30 miles) north of Mekelle. The name ?Wukro? comes from the Geez word ?wekr? that means ?to dig? (Geez is the ancient language of northern Ethiopia and Eritrea.) Ethiopia. Wukro Chirkos is the first rock-hewn church known outside Ethiopia. From the time members of the 1868 British Expedition to Abyssinia reported its existence until the early 20th century, it was the only rock-hewn church known to the outside world. It is also one of the easiest to access, since it's in the town itself. Other rock-hewn churches in the area require transport. There are some 200 of these rock-hewn churches in Tigray, and 25 of them are located in what is called the “Wukro cluster.” Wukro is a convenient, if simple base for visiting some of the most extraordinary rock-hewn churches of the Tigray region. Wukro coffee houses are exclusively owned and operated by women.
The killings of hundreds of civilians by Eritrean troops in the ancient Ethiopian town of Axum in November last year amounted to “a series of human rights and humanitarian law violations”, according to Amnesty International 26 February 2021. The Amnesty International investigation into the same events detailed how Eritrean troops “went on a rampage and systematically killed hundreds of civilians in cold blood”. On November 28 and 29, Eritrean troops killed hundreds of civilians in a “coordinated and systematic” manner in order “to terrorize the population into submission”, the report said. The 41 witnesses and survivors of the massacre, all ethnic Tigrayans interviewed by Amnesty, said Eritrean forces carried out extrajudicial executions and engaged in widespread looting. Human Rights Watch reported 06 March 2021 that Eritrean forces shot dead hundreds of children and civilians in a November 2020 massacre in Tigray.
Axum residents identified the perpetrators as Eritrean soldiers, saying that they often rode in trucks with licence plates reading “Eritrea”. Witnesses said most wore a uniform easily distinguishable from Ethiopian soldiers, some Eritrean soldiers wore the uniform of the Ethiopian army, but were easily identified for their plastic shoes known as “Congo chama” or “shida”, which are popular in Eritrea, witnesses said. Some soldiers had three scars on each temple near the eye, marking them as Beni-Amir, an ethnic group that straddles Sudan and Eritrea but is absent from Ethiopia. Language also distinguished the Eritreans; the Tigrinya dialect that Eritrean soldiers speak is distinctive, with its own words and accent.
On 22 March 2021, the heads of nine UN agencies and other officials demanded a halt to attacks against civilians in Tigray, “including rape and other horrific forms of sexual violence”. In a joint statement, the UN agencies, the UN special investigator on the human rights of internally displaced people, and two umbrella organisations representing NGOs also called on all parties in Tigray to explicitly condemn all sexual violence and ensure their forces “respect and protect civilian populations, particularly women and children, from all human rights abuses”. UN deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said on Monday the conflict continues to drive massive displacement, with tens of thousands of people arriving into Shire, Axum and Adwa, most fleeing fighting in western Tigray.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed admitted for the first time that troops from neighboring Eritrea entered the northern region of Tigray during the conflict that broke out five months ago, suggesting they may have been involved in abuses against civilians. The admission on 23 March 2021 came after months of denials from Ethiopia and Eritrea, even as credible accusations from rights groups and residents mounted that Eritrean soldiers have carried out massacres in Tigray following the start of the Ethiopian government’s offensive against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), then the region’s governing party.
In a wide-ranging speech to parliament, Abiy said Eritrean troops had crossed the border and entered the region because they were concerned they would be attacked by the longtime foe – the TPLF, which dominated Ethiopian politics for decades until Abiy came to power in 2018, had presided over a brutal 1998-2000 war with Eritrea. Abiy said Eritreans had promised to leave when Ethiopia’s military was able to control the border. He added that the “Eritrean people and government did a lasting favour to our soldiers”, during the conflict, without giving more details. “However, after the Eritrean army crossed the border and was operating in Ethiopia, any damage it did to our people was unacceptable,” he said.
“We don’t accept it because it is the Eritrean army, and we would not accept it if it were our soldiers. The military campaign was against our clearly targeted enemies, not against the people. We have discussed this four or five times with the Eritrean government.” The comments also marked the first time Abiy appeared to acknowledge that serious crimes have taken place in Tigray, home to six million people. “Reports indicate that atrocities have been committed in Tigray region,” Abiy said. War is “a nasty thing”, he added, speaking the local Amharic language. “We know the destruction this war has caused.”
Senator Chris Coons (D-Del.), a close ally of Biden and a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, whom President Joe Biden sent as an emissary to Ethiopia says he urged Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to declare a cease-fire in the embattled Tigray region, but his appeal was rejected. “I pressed for a unilateral declaration of a cease-fire, something the prime minister did not agree to, and pressed for a rapid move towards a full political dialogue on Tigray's future political structure,” Senator Chris Coons told reporters 25 March 2021.
On 02 april 2021 G-7 foreign ministers called for a “swift, unconditional and verifiable” withdrawal of Eritrean troops from Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region. The ministers of Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United States, and the high representative of the European Union called for “the end of violence and the establishment of a clear, inclusive political process that is acceptable to all Ethiopians, including those in Tigray.”
The ministers of the world’s leading economies were gathered for an annual meeting in Berlin and issued a statement following a recent announcement from Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed that he has spoken to Eritrea’s President Isaias Afwerki who has agreed to withdraw Eritrean forces from the Tigray region. “In our March 26, 2021 discussions with President Isaias Afwerki during my visit to Asmara, the government of Eritrea has agreed to withdraw its forces out of the Ethiopian border,” Abiy said.
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