World

Ethiopian leader vows to lead troops as war threatens to spread

NAIROBI, Kenya – The Nobel Peace Prize has afflicted Abiy Ahmed since he went to war a year ago, stoking outrage from critics who viewed the 2019 Ethiopian Prime Minister’s award a terrible mistake.

But this week Mr Abiy went further when he said he was heading to the battlefront himself to lead the army as they tried to push back the rebels advance on the capital.

On Thursday, there was no sign of Mr. Abiy, who has delegated the day-to-day management of Ethiopia, Africa’s second most populous country, to his deputy. His office refused to say where he was. But it added to the growing sense of urgency in the face of a war that has displaced two million Ethiopians, pushed at least 400,000 into starvation conditions and now threatens to tear the country apart.

Foreigners are leaving en masse and a US-led diplomatic rush to negotiate a peace has stalled. Ethnic Tigrayan rebels, who began their march into Addis Ababa from northern Ethiopia in July, say they are now 120 miles by road from the capital.

As fears grow that the capital’s airport – one of Africa’s busiest – will close soon, two US military officials have confirmed a report that C-17 military cargo planes have been positioned in neighboring Djibouti, in case an evacuation of US citizens becomes necessary.

Officials pointed out that this is unlikely to happen over Thanksgiving weekend. But beyond that, few were ready to predict what might happen next.

Although his army suffered a series of humiliating defeatsMr. Abiy retains strong public support. His challenge was publicly supported on Wednesday by an Ethiopian national hero, the two-time Olympic gold medalist Haile gebrselassie, who announced that he would also be going to the front lines.

Mr. Gebrselaisse is 48 years old. But many young Ethiopians support Mr Abiy’s campaign, offering to defend Addis Ababa or join the battle in the north – even though they have never fired a weapon.

“I am the prime minister,” said Sintayehu Mulgeta, 28, a taxi driver who joined a newly formed vigilante group that prowls the streets of Addis Ababa at night, armed with sticks, looking suspected rebels.

Mr. Sintayehu blamed the Popular Front for the Liberation of Tigray – who ruled Ethiopia for 27 years until 2018, and controls the rebels now approaching the capital – for the death of his cousin during a political protest in 2016.

“They have my cousin’s blood on their hands,” he said. “I never want them to come back again.”

The bellicose posture reflected the jarring turn Mr. Abiy took from just two years ago, when he took to a stage in the Norwegian capital Oslo to accept the Nobel Peace Prize. “War is the epitome of hell,” Abiy said at the time.

Over the past year, however, references to hellish suffering in Ethiopia have mainly focused on Tigray, the northern region where the forces of Mr. Abiy and their allies from Eritrea and neighboring Amhara region. have faced allegations of massacres, sexual violence and ethnic cleansing.

Tigrayans have also faced allegations of abuse, albeit on a smaller scale.

The Biden administration is leading a diplomatic effort to stop the fighting and prevent the collapse of a key US security partner in the Horn of Africa. Visit Kenya last weekSecretary of State Antony J. Blinken discussed the crisis with President Uhuru Kenyatta.

But the Tigrayans kept pushing south, claiming this week to be outside Debre Sina – a key town perched on a high ridge about 120 miles from Addis Ababa by road.

The Ethiopian government has hesitated between pillorying foreign media for exaggerating its losses and proposing dramatic gestures that seem to indicate vulnerability as much as strength.

Before heading to the battlefield this week, Mr. Abiy was a time when “martyrdom is necessary”.

His government on Wednesday expelled four Irish diplomats – out of six in the country – amid harsh criticism by Ireland of Mr Abiy’s actions. They joined a list of foreign journalists, aid workers and senior United Nations officials who have been forced to leave Ethiopia since the summer when the tide of the war began to turn.

The security forces engaged in a fierce roundup of ethnic Tigrayans which has seen thousands of arrests, many crammed into makeshift detention centers.

During daily recruiting ceremonies, older Ethiopians listen intently to speeches denouncing the Tigrayan “junta”, as the TPLF is called, as younger men and women volunteer to go to the front lines.

“I don’t want to see the junta in power anymore,” said Tilahun Mamo, 32, a parking lot guard who heads a group of 30 vigilantes in the Bole neighborhood, and waits to be called to war.

The deep-seated fears of the Tigrayan regime underlie some of Mr. Abiy’s support. During its 27 years of political domination, the TPLF brought economic progress to Ethiopia, but also rigged elections, jailed and tortured critics, and suppressed the free press.

But analysts say Abiy has also embarked on a concerted campaign to smear Tigrayans, which senior UN officials have warned could escalate into ethnic or even genocidal violence.

“Why should I sit and wait for the terrorists to come and take my town?” Said Dereje Tegenu, a 42-year-old security guard and member of a vigilante group in Addis Ababa. “I’m going to go fight them.”

Ethnic fault lines are most striking among the Oromo, who make up about a third of Ethiopia’s 110 million people. Although Mr. Abiy, whose father is Oromo, came to power in 2018 in a wave of street protests led by angry young Oromos, many members of this movement now say he betrayed their cause. .

Some have taken up arms against him, notably through the Oromo Liberation Army which joined the Tigrayans in the march on Addis.

In a telephone interview, Jaal Marroo, the leader of the Oromo group, called Mr. Abiy’s promise to fight “a joke” and predicted that the country “was heading for chaos”.

“The government is frustrated with using human waves to play its last card – to mobilize ethnic groups,” he said.

Oromo political prisoners say their lives are in danger. Jawar mohammed and Bekele Gerba, two prominent Oromo leaders jailed last year, this week released a statement through their families saying they feared their prison guards would try to kill them.

This week, France and Germany joined a list of Western countries urging their citizens to leave Ethiopia as soon as possible, while regular flights are still in service. The U.S. Embassy has ordered all non-essential personnel to leave and this week warned of the potential for unspecified “terrorist attacks” in Ethiopia.

At a press conference Thursday, an Ethiopian government spokesperson called the US warning “false information.”

The report was provided by Eric schmitt in San Francisco and a New York Times reporter in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.


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