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Ethiopian PM rebuffs mediation attempts as Tigray deadline nears

Abiy Ahmed, the prime minister of Ethiopia, has forcefully rejected efforts by international powers to bring hostilities in the north of the country to an end.

Abiy’s statement on Wednesday came hours before a deadline for the surrender of the leadership of the restive region of Tigray expires, after which federal troops have been ordered to attack its capital, Mekelle.

There are growing calls for mediation to halt a conflict that threatens to destabilise a swath of east Africa. Hundreds, possibly thousands of people, have died so far, and many more forced to flee their homes.

The leader of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the ruling party in the region, said on Tuesday his people were “ready to die” defending their homeland, rejecting the prime minister’s Sunday night demand that they lay down their arms within 72 hours.

Abiy launched the military campaign against the TPLF on 4 November, accusing it of attacking federal military camps in the northern region and seeking to destabilise the country.

The 44-year-old leader, who won the Nobel peace prize last year, said the TPLF had orchestrated a “spate of violent attacks” across Ethiopia to “frustrate the democratisation process”.

“A fundamental element of the international legal order is the principle of non-intervention in the internal affairs of sovereign states … We respectfully urge the international community to refrain from any unwelcome and unlawful acts of interference,” Abiy said.

Timeline

Key events leading to Ethiopia's Tigray crisis

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May 1991

Revolution

The Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) topples Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, the head of a communist junta that ruled the country from 1974. The coalition group is led by the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), guerrilla fighters who marched from their homeland in Ethiopia's north to the capital, Addis Ababa.

August 1995

Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia proclaimed

The EPRDF sweeps to power in poorly contested elections, and the TPLF leader, Meles Zenawi, becomes Ethiopia's prime minister. Tigrayans dominate senior ranks of government.

1995 - 2012

Ethnic federalism

Meles introduces a system that gives the country's main ethnic groups the chance to govern the areas in which they dominate. Though Tigrayans make up about 5% of the population, they benefit disproportionately, other regions complain, as roads and other infrastructure are built in their sparsely populated area.

August 2012

Meles dies

The prime minister dies in office and a successor from another ethnic group is appointed.

2015 - 2018

ERPDF divided

Divisions break out in the EPRDF over how quickly to pursue political reforms in response to street protests that threaten the coalition's grip.

April 2018

Abiy Ahmed comes to power

Abiy Ahmed, an Oromo, takes over as prime minister, winning praise at home and abroad for opening up one of Africa's most restrictive political and economic systems.

2019

Crackdowns

Tigrayans complain they are being persecuted in a crackdown on corruption and past abuses. Former senior military and political officials are put on trial.

11 October 2019

Peace prize

Abiy is awarded the Nobel peace prize for his peacemaking efforts, which ended two decades of hostility with Eritrea. The TPLF continue to view Eritrea as an enemy.

21 November 2019

Divisions

Ethiopia's ruling coalition agrees to form a single party, but the TPLF refuses to merge with three other ethnic-based parties, calling the move rushed and undemocratic.

8 September 2020

Election row

Tigray holds regional elections in defiance of the federal government, which postponed nationwide polls due in August because of Covid-19. Abiy's government says the vote is illegal.

October 2020

Funds withheld

The federal government starts to withhold some funds meant for social welfare programmes in Tigray, part of a plan to starve the regional authorities of cash in retaliation for the vote.

4 November 2020

Fighting breaks out

Abiy sends troops into Tigray, accusing the TPLF of attacking federal troops based in the region. The TPLF accuses Abiy of punishing the region for the September vote. Reuters

In his first year in office after coming to power in 2018, Abiy released thousands of political prisoners and pushed through a series of changes. Some of these were reversed in his second year, amid a rise in political and ethnic tension.

Officials in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, describe the offensive in Tigray as a “law enforcement operation” aiming to remove “traitorous” rebel leaders and restore central authority. The TPLF says it is defending its legitimate rights under Ethiopia’s devolved constitutional system.

The federal army has told reporters its forces are within 37 miles (60km) of Mekelle, the seat of the TPLF.

The army has threatened a “no mercy” assault on the city, warning civilians to distance themselves from the TPLF and leave while they can. The threat has prompted global concern, with human rights campaigners saying it could breach international legal codes.

Abiy has urged the people of Mekelle to side with the national army against the TPLF “in bringing this treasonous group to justice”.

TPLF officials have denied Mekelle is surrounded and its spokesman, Getachew Reda, said an important army unit – which he named as the 21st mechanised division – was destroyed in an assault at Raya-Wajirat led by a former commander of that unit now fighting for the TPLF. The prime minister’s spokeswoman, Billene Seyoum, denied the claim.

However, the clash appears to have taken place 15-20 miles (25-35km) from Mekelle, suggesting federal troops have advanced a considerable distance into Tigray from the border with neighbouring Amhara province, from where most of their forces started two weeks ago.

By invoking the principle of non-intervention, Abiy hopes to rally support from other African countries and rebuff intensifying pressure from the United Nations, the US, the EU and other powers for a ceasefire, analysts said.

The UN security council scheduled, cancelled, then rescheduled its first meeting to discuss the situation on Tuesday as African and European nations argued over holding a debate.

The EU, which is a major aid donor to Ethiopia, also expressed concern over “increasing ethnic-targeted violence, numerous casualties and violations of human rights and of international humanitarian law”.

The African Union chair, South Africa’s president, Cyril Ramaphosa, has backed sending three high-level envoys for Ethiopia, an initiative the UN praised for “efforts to peacefully resolve the conflict”, but which seems to have lost momentum.

Officials in Addis Ababa have said any envoys would not be allowed to meet the TPLF leadership.

Ethiopia has long been a linchpin of US policy in the fragile east African region and so far Washington has supported Abiy.

Tibor Nagy, the US assistant secretary for African affairs, said 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.”

However, Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser-designate for the US president-elect, Joe Biden, said on Wednesday he was “deeply concerned about the risk of violence against civilians, including potential war crimes, in the fighting around Mekelle in Ethiopia” and called for an immediate start to dialogue involving both sides facilitated by the African Union.

A communications blackout in the region has made claims from both sides difficult to verify.

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