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Ethiopian war in Tigray intensifies as government troops seize strategic Shire

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NAIROBI – After days of airstrikes and artillery fire, government troops on Monday took control of a key city in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region, precipitating a civilian exodus, according to a diplomat who spoke to witnesses. In August, the five-month truce was broken.

An aid worker among a group of people evacuated from the city said thousands of frightened residents began venturing out of the opposition-controlled city of the Shire over the weekend, fearing a repeat of previous atrocities, including gang rapes and mass murders.

He said bus tickets bought by the wealthy had gone from $6.60 to nearly $100, and that crowds of poor families scrambled along the highway, carrying children on their shoulders, who were occasionally awakened by the sound of distant explosions. As buses passed through the crowds, families banged on the windows, begging drivers to pick up pregnant women or crying children. The aid worker and several others interviewed for this story spoke about the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.

Renewed hostilities, which pit Tigrayan forces against the Ethiopian army and its Eritrean allies, have triggered new concerns among diplomats that Africa’s second most populous nation will be embroiled in a long and devastating war. this will further destabilize the already unstable Horn of Africa region.

“The situation in Ethiopia is getting out of control. UN Secretary-General António Guterres wrote on Twitter on Monday after news of the Shire’s fall. “The hostilities in Tigray, including the immediate withdrawal and departure of Eritrean armed forces from Ethiopia, must now end,” he said.

The Shire was controlled by Tigray forces, which had been fighting Ethiopia’s central government for nearly two years and was home to about 100,000 people and 60,000 more fleeing conflict elsewhere. The city is a strategic crossroads and the gateway to the main highway leading west to Mekelle, the capital of Tigray. The airport could also be used by Ethiopian forces to significantly extend the range and duration of their drones in the air.

A Western diplomat estimates that around 87,500 Ethiopian soldiers and 25,000 to 60,000 Eritrean soldiers were involved in the recent conflict. Speaking on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to the media, the diplomat said that information received from hospitals showed that approximately 5,000 soldiers were killed in these latest clashes.

Less information is coming from the Tigrayan-controlled area, where there has been no phone contact for more than a year. A humanitarian worker said trucks full of the wounded arrived in Tigray from the front line earlier this month.

The Ethiopian government issued a statement Monday saying it aims to take control of airports and other infrastructure in Tigray, adding that unnamed “hostile foreign actors” are violating Ethiopian airspace.

“ [Ethiopian National Defense Forces] It strictly complies with all relevant norms and principles of international humanitarian law. “Strict instructions have been given to all combat units to reinforce this commitment.” There was no mention of Eritrean soldiers held responsible for many previous violations.

The government also said it was ready to provide humanitarian access to areas controlled by the Ethiopian military.

With conflicts raging on three fronts in the north, west and south, many Tigraians fear for survival.

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“People say there will be no mercy if they come here,” one of the Shire residents wrote to the Washington Post on WhatsApp. That fear is pushing young people to join forces commanded by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the political party that controls Tigray, he said earlier this year, after many tried to avoid fighting and were recruited into the military.

During the first eight months of the war, when Ethiopian and Eritrean troops controlled most of Tigray, the United Nations, international rights groups and journalists documented many. mass killings and gang rapes, including in small villages. At the time, Ethiopia said the reports of atrocities were exaggerated, although the government acknowledged that it had arrested some soldiers for various crimes.

Eritrea has always denied committing war crimes, despite extensive documentation of abuses by rights groups and journalists. For months at the start of the conflict, both countries repeatedly denied that Eritrean troops were even in Tigray.

The United Nations said Tigrayan forces had committed gang rapes and killed civilians while pushing into neighboring areas, though not on the same scale.

Eritrea, often referred to as the “North Korea of ​​Africa,” has not made a public statement about the conflict. Constant government surveillance and pressure from dissidents make it difficult to speak to fearful residents inside the country. But exiles, diplomats and family members in Eritrea, say it has significantly increased the rate of conscription, including for men over 50.

Exiled Eritrean priest working with refugees, Mussie Zerai, said citizens who fled Eritrea can expect their families to be punished. In one case he confirmed, he said soldiers removed worshipers from the church and marched them at gunpoint.

An Eritrean woman in exile told The Post that three weeks ago, police had come to her father’s house several times to force her 45-year-old brother to join the army. His brother hid with his friends, but enlisted in the army after their father was threatened with jail time. The 27-year-old female cousin said she spoke on condition of anonymity to protect her family from reprisals after local authorities threatened to lock down her family’s home and leave them homeless.

Eritrean Information Minister Yemane Gebremeskel did not answer calls seeking comment.

Previous attempts at peace talks stalled. US mediated a meeting between Ethiopia and TPLF Earlier this year in Seychelles and twice in Djibouti, authorities declared a humanitarian ceasefire that finally allowed more food aid to reach the starving region.

But aid groups were not allowed to deliver much-needed medicines or fuel for aid distribution. Telephone lines, banking services and electricity, cut off by the withdrawal of Ethiopian and Eritrean troops more than a year ago, have also not been restored.

At the end of August, TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael issued a stern warning that Tigray could either fight or starve. Days later, the fighting started again.

Clashes erupt on Tigray border, dashing hopes for peace in Ethiopia

The US supports an African Union-led process, and both sides said they would participate in the negotiations. But diplomats said that despite a public invitation for the two sides to meet in South Africa earlier this month, the African Union appeared to have made little logistical or diplomatic preparation for negotiations. It is also unclear whether Eritrea will be included.

An aid worker said he killed an International Rescue Committee (IRC) member in a drone strike in the Shire on Friday. The IRC said the aid worker was killed and a colleague was injured while providing humanitarian aid. Two civilians were also killed. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, at least 26 aid workers have been killed since the start of the war in Tigray.

An aid worker from the Shire said earlier this month that another drone attack on a civilian convoy near the town of Adi Daero killed more than 60 people.

He said his friend’s father was among the dead. His family could not identify him as his body was in such a bad condition. “They couldn’t even find his face,” he said.

Ethiopian military spokesman Colonel Getnet Adane did not respond to calls or messages seeking comment on the attacks, but the government said Monday it “deeply regrets” any harm done to civilians or humanitarian personnel and promised an investigation.