ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) – Ethiopia said on Thursday it was bearing down on the capital of Tigray region in a two-week-old war, and tore into the World Health Organization (WHO) head with accusations of diplomatic lobbying for the rebels.
The conflict has killed hundreds, sent 30,000 refugees into Sudan, and called into question whether Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed – Africa’s youngest leader and last year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner – can hold his ethnically-divided nation together.
As international alarm grew over spreading instability in the Horn of Africa, U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s team appealed for an end to fighting and protection for civilians.
Abiy’s government says its troops have won a string of victories and will soon reach state capital Mekelle, a highland town of about 500,000 people, where the regional ruling Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) has strong support and a battle-hardened history.
“Our defence forces are moving forward and closing in on Mekelle,” government spokesman Redwan Hussein told reporters. “There are a number of towns that have fallen.”
The war has pitted the central government against one of the most heavily militarised of 10 ethnic states that make up Ethiopia. Tigrayans from the TPLF effectively ruled Ethiopia for decades as the strongest force in a multi-ethnic coalition, until Abiy took power two years ago.
The government says the TPLF has turned renegade and is holding power in Tigray illegally. The TPLF says the war is part of an unconstitutional assault on regional rights. Both sides accuse the other of atrocities and blocking humanitarian aid.
The government-appointed head of a newly-named interim administration for Tigray, academic Mulu Nega, said new local elections were planned to restore peace to the region once TPLF leaders were ousted.