Ethiopia's Abiy Says Has Tigray Leaders in His Sights


Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said Monday the Tigray region's dissident leaders had fled west of the regional capital after weeks of fighting, but indicated that federal forces were monitoring them closely and would attack them soon.

Abiy, winner of last year's Nobel Peace Prize, this month ordered military operations against leaders of Tigray's ruling party, the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), in response to what he said were TPLF-organized attacks on Ethiopian federal army camps.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke to the Ethiopian leader on Monday, urging him to end fighting that has left thousands dead in the northern region and prompted tens of thousands to flee across the border into Sudan.

The conflict has been a dramatic escalation of tensions between Abiy and the leaders of the TPLF, which dominated Ethiopian politics for nearly three decades before anti-government protests swept Abiy to power in 2018.

"I want them to hear me: yesterday evening, around midnight, we saw them from the situation room in the area between Hagere Selam and Abiy Addi," Abiy said in remarks to lawmakers, referring to two towns west of the Tigray capital Mekele. 

"We didn't attack them at night because as they retreated they took their wives, children and abducted soldiers... But this will not continue."

Abiy said on Saturday the military operations were "completed" after federal forces claimed control of the Tigray regional capital Mekele. 

The TPLF leaders have repeatedly vowed to fight on, though their exact whereabouts remain unknown.

In a phone call with Abiy, Pompeo "called for a complete end to the fighting and constructive dialogue to resolve the crisis," a State Department statement said.

The top US diplomat noted Abiy's declaration that major operations were finished but "reiterated the United States' grave concern regarding ongoing hostilities and the risks the conflict poses," it said.

Pompeo called for the protection of civilians from harm and "urged the government of Ethiopia to ensure respect for human rights of Tigrayans and all ethnic groups."

- 'Mekele is ours' -

As the Ethiopian military bore down on Mekele last week, global concern mounted about a possible bloodbath in a city that, before the conflict, had a population of half a million. 

A communications blackout in Tigray has made it difficult to verify claims from both sides about the fighting.

On Monday, Abiy claimed soldiers did not kill any civilians as they took over Mekele and other cities in Tigray.

"Mekele is ours, it was built with our own resources. We are not going to destroy it," he said. "Not even a single person was harmed by the operation in Mekele."

The International Committee of the Red Cross said Sunday that hospitals in Mekele were flooded with trauma patients, though it did not specify how the injuries were sustained.

Abiy also dismissed claims from TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael that air strikes had resulted in many civilian casualties.

As Abiy tries to shift towards helping Tigray recover, the national human rights body called Monday for telecommunications to be restored and for water, electricity and health services to resume.

The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, which is government-affiliated but independent, also noted "complaints of ethnic profiling" including "forced leave from work" and travel restrictions. 

- Rising tensions -

In a marathon four-hour address, his first to lawmakers since the conflict began, Abiy fielded multiple questions about why he had not moved against the TPLF leadership earlier.

The party has complained of being sidelined, targeted for corruption prosecutions and scapegoated for the country's woes under Abiy's rule.

Tensions rose dramatically after Tigray held its own elections in September, flouting a nationwide ban on polls because of the coronavirus pandemic.

It then tried to brand Abiy an illegitimate ruler.

Abiy said Monday that when he took office, he was hemmed in by a TPLF-run security and intelligence apparatus.

"My office in general was under the control of other forces. Even the key to my house was controlled by these people, they opened the door, they closed the door, morning and night," Abiy said.

He accused the TPLF of fomenting internal conflict, including ethnic clashes, throughout the country during his tenure, leaving only Tigray unaffected.

Abiy vowed Monday that Ethiopia would be able to quickly welcome back Ethiopian refugees in Sudan.

Abiy's government has seized on a massacre in Mai-Kadra as evidence of pro-TPLF forces' brutality, though refugees in Sudan told AFP that pro-government forces were involved in killings.

Abiy also thanked Eritrea for its support during the conflict, including helping Ethiopian soldiers who at one point were forced to retreat over Ethiopia's northern border onto Eritrean soil.

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