Ethiopia’s Afar region on Friday called on civilians to take up arms against rebels from neighboring Tigray, signaling a potential escalation in fighting that has already displaced tens of thousands this week.
“Every Afar should protect their land with any means available, whether by guns, sticks or stones,” regional President Awol Arba said in an interview aired by regional state media. “No weapons can make us kneel down. We will win this war with our strong determination.”
Tigrayan rebels launched operations in Afar last weekend, saying they were targeting pro-government troops massing along the two regions’ shared border.
A government official said on Thursday that more than 20 civilians had been killed and 70,000 people displaced in “heavy fighting” in Afar that was continuing.
Rebel spokesman Getachew Reda has described operations in Afar as a “very limited” action against special forces and militia fighters deployed to Afar by the Oromia region, Ethiopia’s largest.
However, Awol on Friday said that claim was misleading.
“Some people think they invaded us because we hosted the Oromo forces, but that’s far from the truth, as they had the intention to separate and isolate us from Ethiopia by force,” he said.
“It’s time that every Afar should stand as one against the junta,” he added, using government officials’ preferred term for the rebels.
The fighting highlights the potential for the eight-month-long conflict to expand well beyond Tigray, where thousands of people have already been killed and hundreds of thousands pushed into famine, according to the UN.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent troops into Tigray in November last year to oust the region’s ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), a move he said was in response to TPLF attacks on federal army camps.
Last month, pro-TPLF fighters reclaimed the Tigray capital, Mekele, and Abiy declared a unilateral ceasefire, but clashes have continued and officials from six regions and the city of Dire Dawa have since said they would send troops to back up government forces.
The road into Ethiopia via Djibouti’s port, east of Afar, is vital for the landlocked country, raising speculation that Tigrayan rebels might try to choke it off.
Getachew has said this is not an explicit goal of the operation, but has declined to rule it out.
Separately, the road via Afar’s capital, Semera, into Tigray had become critical for aid delivery in the past few weeks after two key bridges along other routes were destroyed in late June.
However, the recent fighting has put a halt to convoys, and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said on Friday the route remained impassable, “preventing food stock, fuel and other humanitarian goods from entering Tigray.”
A convoy of 200 aid trucks is on standby in Semera awaiting security clearance.
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