Confidential papers warn that, despite talk of success, army faces heavy resistance and regional stability is at risk
Ethiopian national forces are meeting heavy resistance and face a protracted “war of attrition” in the northern region of Tigray, a confidential United Nations assessment reveals.
Though officials in Addis Ababa, the capital, have repeatedly claimed that key towns have been secured, paramilitaries and militia deployed by the army are still struggling to clear and secure territory. Heavily armed regular troops have continued to advance into Tigray as they rush to reach the capital, Mekelle, the assessment says.
The UN document and more than a dozen interviews with aid workers from other international organisations give the most comprehensive overview so far of the fighting, and will deepen international concerns that the two-week-old conflict threatens to become a long and brutal battle, destabilising one of Africa’s most fragile regions.
Information has been difficult to obtain and confirm with communications cut to Tigray and journalists banned. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of people have been killed so far and many more have been displaced. More than 36,000 have fled into neighbouring Sudan, and large numbers are on the move within Tigray to avoid the fighting.
Abiy Ahmed, the Ethiopian prime minister, said early last week that the Ethiopian Defence Forces (EDF) were poised to make a “final push” to secure Mekelle and oust the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the ruling party in the region. Last Thursday, government spokesman Redwan Hussein told reporters that national forces were “moving forward and closing in on Mekelle” and that a number of towns had fallen.
“Although Tigray regional forces may have initially been backfooted by the EDF’s swift advances, the terrain in eastern Tigray is easier to defend… and if they make a stand, they have the capability to stall the EDF advance,” one analysis reads, warning that this will then “change the dimension of the conflict from one of rapid movement into one of attrition”.
Documents seen by the Observer report continuing combat in areas which Addis Ababa claims are now controlled by government forces, though their authors admit information is hard to verify.
“After the EDF have reportedly ‘taken’ key towns such as Humera, Dansha, Shiraro, Alamata and Shire, and then pushed on with their advance, fighting has continued to be reported, or has subsequently erupted again in these locations,” one reliable account said.
The documents describe well-trained and heavily armed frontline units from the Ethiopian army bypassing main towns to avoid costly urban fighting as they hurry towards Mekelle. But the militia and paramilitaries deployed in their wake are neither as well-equipped nor as disciplined and so are vulnerable to counter-attack.
One assessment predicted that if Ethiopian forces continue to advance, their supply lines and rear areas will become more vulnerable to guerilla attacks and casualties will mount.
The conflict in north-west Ethiopia is the culmination of months of rising tensions between the TPLF and the ruling coalition in Addis Ababa. When national elections were cancelled because of the pandemic, the TPLF held polls anyway, in a move that aggravated tensions.
Abiy, who is Africa’s youngest leader and won the Nobel peace prize last year, launched his operation after accusing the TPLF of attacking a military camp and trying to seize military hardware.
The African Union said last Friday that it would send a team of mediators to Ethiopia in a bid to resolve the dispute, but few observers see much immediate prospect for peace.
The US ambassador to Ethiopia, Michael Raynor, said recent conversations with Abiy and with Debretsion Gebremichael, the hardline TPLF leader, had convinced him there was “a strong commitment on both sides to see the military conflict through”.
In a statement this week, the TPLF said hardships are part of life in wartime and promised to give Ethiopian troops “hell”on its home turf.
The reports seen by the Observer depict a complex and dynamic conflict across much of Tigray, with major clashes in the west of the region – as Ethiopian forces sought to advance towards the strategic town of Humera – and in the south-west, along the main road to Mekelle. Heavy fighting has also been reported around the town of Alamata, six miles from the border with neighbouring Amhara province which is fiercely loyal to the central government.
Ethiopian planes have launched air strikes, and Tigrayans have fired missiles into Amhara and Eritrea, which has supported the offensive to remove the TPLF. At least one massacre has been reported: it has been blamed on retreating Tigrayan militia targeting a community seen as loyal to the central government, but there is no confirmation of this.
Though they number only 6 million out of a total 110 million people living in Africa’s second most populous country, Tigrayans effectively ruled Ethiopia for decades. Until Abiy took power two years ago, they were the strongest force in a multi-ethnic coalition. Abiy, whose parents are from the larger Oromo and Amhara ethnic groups, freed thousands of political prisoners and pledged to end domination by one ethnic group.
“Even if the EDF are successful in their mission to take Mekelle,” the UN assessment warns, “this will not necessarily end the conflict. It is likely that a protracted asymmetric conflict and insurgency would continue. From a humanitarian perspective, the longer the conflict is drawn out, the more severe the crisis will become.”
Ethiopia has long been a linchpin of US policy in the fragile east African region and so far Washington has supported Abiy.
Tibor Nagy, US assistant secretary for African affairs, told reporters last week: “This is not two sovereign states fighting. This is a faction of the government running a region that has decided to undertake hostilities against the central government, and it has not … had the effect they thought they were going to get.”
On Saturday, Abiy said on Twitter that the safety and wellbeing of the people of Tigray was of paramount importance and the federal government would do everything to “ensure stability prevails in the Tigray region and that our citizens are free from harm and want”.