Ethiopia declares state of emergency, U.S tells its citizens to leave; Tigrayan rebels say capital could fall soon

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Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa could fall within “months if not weeks”, an Oromo group allied with Tigrayan rebels told AFP, as Washington announced it would send a US envoy to the country to hold talks.

The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which has been fighting Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government for a year, has claimed significant territorial gains in recent days, along with its ally the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA).

As fighting has dragged on, reports of massacres, mass rapes and a starvation crisis have emerged, with the UN rights chief on Wednesday denouncing extreme brutality after a joint UN-Ethiopian report warned of possible “crimes against humanity” by all sides.

In Washington, the US State Department said it was sending Jeffrey Feltman, special envoy for the Horn of Africa, to the country this week.

He will hold talks on Thursday and Friday to urge “all Ethiopians to commit to peace and resolution of grievances through dialogue,” it said.

Earlier Wednesday, OLA spokesman Odaa Tarbii said his group intended to topple Abiy’s government, calling his removal “a foregone conclusion.”

“If things continue in the current trajectory, then we are talking about a matter of months if not weeks,” he said.

TPLF spokesman Getachew Reda announced late Wednesday that the rebels were working alongside OLA to capture territory in Kemissie in the Amhara region, some 325 kilometres (200 miles) from Addis Ababa. “Joint operations will continue in the days and weeks ahead,” Getachew said on Twitter.

Ethiopia declared a nationwide state of emergency Tuesday and ordered residents of Addis Ababa to prepare to defend their neighbourhoods.

Abiy on Wednesday urged citizens to back the war effort and accused the rebels of trying to turn Ethiopia into Libya and Syria, as anxious residents of the capital voiced support for the government’s measures.

“They are enemies of Ethiopia and they need to (be) dismissed, and to do that all of us need to cooperate with the state of emergency,” said Azmeraw Berhan, a self-employed man.

Under the state of emergency, authorities can conscript “any military-age citizen who has weapons” or suspend media outlets believed to be “giving moral support directly or indirectly” to the TPLF, according to state-affiliated Fana Broadcasting Corporate. Getachew said the measures amounted to a “carte blanche to jail or kill Tigrayans at will”.

Two lawyers monitoring arbitrary detentions of Tigrayans in Addis Ababa told AFP Wednesday they had received reports of dozens of people, and likely many more, rounded up by city police since the emergency was declared, some of whom were taken from their homes.

A joint investigation by the office of UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) published Wednesday found evidence of “serious abuses and violations” by all sides in the conflict.

“The gravity and seriousness of the violations and abuses we have documented underscore the need to hold perpetrators accountable on all sides,” Bachelet said.

The report, which covers the period from November 3, 2020, through June, pointed to extra-judicial executions, endemic torture and sexual violence among other abuses, and said that “a number of these violations may amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes”.

It detailed reports of gang rapes against women and girls, as well as men and boys.

It recorded the deaths of at least 29 civilians in shelling by Ethiopian forces targeting Tigray’s capital Mekele on November 28, as well as revenge killings in Mai-Kadra following the town’s capture by federal and Amhara forces after a massacre of ethnic Amhara residents last year.

Bachelet’s office said it had also tracked abuses committed after the period covered in the report, including the deaths of 47 civilians at the hands of TPLF fighters in the village of Chenna in Amhara in September.

Abiy said the report presented no evidence of genocide but Bachelet said the findings were not so clear-cut and called for further investigation.

Abiy sent troops into Tigray a year ago in response, he said, to TPLF attacks on army camps.

The 2019 Nobel Peace laureate promised a swift victory, but by late June the rebels had retaken most of Tigray and expanded into the neighbouring regions of Afar and Amhara.

In recent days the TPLF has claimed control of two key cities in Amhara, about 400 kilometres (250 miles) north of Addis Ababa.

The government has denied claims of TPLF territorial gains which, if confirmed, would represent a major strategic advance.

Much of northern Ethiopia is under a communications blackout and access for journalists is restricted, making battlefield claims difficult to verify independently.

The escalating conflict has sparked alarm among the international community, with thousands killed and hundreds of thousands forced into famine-like conditions, according to the UN. ref: AFP