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New front in war in Ethiopia displaces thousands and dashed hopes for peace talks

The Bigger Picture: New front in war in Ethiopia displaces thousands and dashed hopes for peace talks
Bullet holes are seen on a mosque caused by fighting between the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) forces in Kasagita town, Afar region, Ethiopia, February 25, 2022. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

March 30, 2022

By Giulia Paravicini

AFDERA, Ethiopia (Reuters) – A new front in Ethiopia’s war in the Afar region is jeopardizing efforts to get enemies to meet for peace talks, three regional officials and three diplomats have said, and a ceasefire declared last week could be broken in some have been put.

The flare-up in violence in Afar this year came after fighting in neighboring Tigray and Amhara regions stalled and efforts to get the Addis Ababa government and Tigray rebels to agree to peace talks gathered momentum.

“There can be no peace in Ethiopia while there is fighting in Afar,” said Mussa Ibrahim, a clan leader in Erepti, one of six districts in Afar currently occupied by Tigrayan forces.

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On Thursday, Ethiopia announced a unilateral ceasefire, the second called in a 16-month conflict that has displaced millions and plunged hundreds of thousands into starvation.

But Afar Police Commissioner Ahmed Harif told Reuters on Monday that fighting is ongoing in two of the six districts held by Tigrayan fighters and there is a “significant” buildup of Tigrayan forces along the border.

Two humanitarian workers confirmed the fighting.

Getachew Reda, a spokesman for the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which is fighting the government, denied there had been any clashes in those areas. He did not comment on allegations of a military build-up.

The TPLF previously said it would honor the ceasefire if aid was delivered quickly.

When the government last declared a unilateral ceasefire in July after months of fighting that drove the military out of Tigray, the TPLF dismissed it as a “joke” and continued fighting, arguing that key conditions for peace were not being met be.

TPLF and Afar forces are at odds over who started the latest round of fighting in the north-eastern region that flared up in mid-January. The regional government estimates that 300,000 people had to leave their homes.

The TPLF say they were responding to attacks on Tigray by Afar forces and allies, while Afar officials say Tigray forces were the attackers.

Among those fleeing the violence was Ayisha Ali, whose hometown of Berhale was attacked in early February.

Speaking at a warehouse that serves as a rudimentary camp for the displaced in Afdera, some 130 km southeast of where she lives, she was unaware of what happened to her seven children after their family was scattered in the chaos.

Twelve other relatives were killed when their huts were hit by explosions, she said. Among them were her sister, her sister’s five children, and a pregnant cousin. Ayisha blamed the Tigrayan forces.

“We couldn’t even bury her; Their bodies were in pieces,” she told Reuters. “The heavy weapons fired at us and we… ran away.”

Two neighbors who spoke at the camp also described heavy fighting and the deaths of civilians. Reuters has not been able to independently verify the accounts of Ayisha or her neighbors.

Getachew, the TPLF spokesman, did not respond to questions about the killing of civilians in Berhale and elsewhere in Afar. The group has previously denied attacking civilians.

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In July, Tigrayan forces entered Afar and the adjacent Amhara region for the first time.

At the time, the TPLF said it was trying to break a stranglehold preventing aid convoys from entering the region and forcing Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s Amhara allies to withdraw from a contested area in western Tigray.

A government offensive in December pushed Tigrayan forces back into their region.

This time, the warring factions are at odds over who initiated the violence, and the motives are less clear.

Ayisha described Tigrayan fighters who arrived in Berhale on February 7 and engaged in fierce gun battles with local militiamen armed with heavy weapons.

An internal United Nations security bulletin seen by Reuters said fighting continued in the city on March 11 and 12.

The TPLF accuses Afar forces of attacking the Tigray region along with fighters from Eritrea, Ethiopia’s northern neighbor who is also allied with the Abiys government.

Eritrea’s Information Minister Yemane Gebremeskel did not respond to requests for comment on the TPLF allegations. During the first months of the war, the country denied that its forces were fighting in Tigray.

Officials from afar, security forces and allied militiamen are pointing fingers at the TPLF for opening a new front in the conflict.

“We don’t know why they are entering us, why they are killing our women and children,” said Mohammed Idris, head of Afar’s northern administrative zone. “We keep defending ourselves because this is our country.”

Ethiopian government spokesman Legesse Tulu and military spokesman Colonel Getnet Adane did not respond to requests for comment on the fighting.

Mohammed Hussein, head of the government’s humanitarian aid office in Afar, said the Tigrayan fighters returned to Afar in mid-January and have now occupied six of the region’s 32 districts.

Getachew did not respond to questions about the Tigrayan forces’ invasion.

The TPLF has accused Addis Ababa of fomenting the conflict in Afar to justify blocking aid to Tigray, where more than 90% of the population is in need of food aid.

The Ethiopian government denies blocking aid and blames fighting in Afar for cutting off the only route humanitarian convoys can take to Tigray.

The disputes underscore how complicated it will be to end a war that has threatened the unity of Africa’s second most populous nation.

The TPLF, which dominated Ethiopia’s government for nearly three decades before Abiy came to power in 2018, has accused him of trying to centralize power at the expense of the country’s ethnic regions. Abiy’s government says the TPLF is trying to regain control of the country.

CIVILIANS KILLED

After being separated from her children, who range in age from five to 18, Ayisha fled.

She said she and half a dozen other villagers trekked across the desert for eight days, asking passing shepherds for food and water. Two pregnant women who set out with them became too weak to continue. She doesn’t know what happened to them.

Ayisha’s neighbor Mohammed Mohamouda said seriously wounded people were left behind in Berhale.

“There were many dead. There was blood and body parts,” he said in an interview at Afdera camp, where families were lining up waiting for water.

At least 749 civilians have died in fighting in Afar and Amhara since July last year, including extrajudicial killings by all sides in the conflict, the government-installed Ethiopian Human Rights Commission said on March 11.

On a trip to Afar in late February, Reuters saw two refugee camps full of desperate families.

Malnutrition is also rising in the region, the UN World Food Program said, and Afdera camps lack water, shelter and food. People are still pouring in.

Mohammed Hussein of the Afar Relief Office said the region is being overlooked by international aid groups.

“We need food, shelter, water,” he said. “The international humanitarian community … has very little awareness or understanding of the Afar situation.”

The United Nations humanitarian arm OCHA said aid is unable to reach some areas of the region due to fighting and the overall effort is being hampered by a lack of funds, supplies and partners.

A fifth of health facilities across Afar are not functioning, OCHA said in a Feb. 24 report, because they are inaccessible or have been looted or destroyed.

Doctors at Dubti Referral Hospital, the region’s largest, about 150km south of Afdera, told Reuters that medicines and space were running out as wounded and malnourished patients arrived.

The hospital’s chief executive, Mohammed Yusuf, said around 300 people, including women and children, have been injured in the violence since January.

Cases of children injured by unexploded ordnance or landmines have risen from zero to about 25 cases a week in the past two months, according to Tamer Ibrahim, head nurse at the surgical department. Reuters viewed medical records for 22 of those cases.

(Additional coverage by the Addis Ababa Newsroom; Editing by Katharine Houreld, Alexandra Zavis and Mike Collett-White)

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Bobby Allyn

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