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Ethiopian PM vows to protect Tigray civilians

November 27, 2020

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has promised African peace envoys that civilians in the northern region will be protected from the "last" phase of the conflict. The UN has warned that refugees are quickly running out of food.

People trade live chickens during the preparations for the eve of the Ethiopian New Year,

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's government is committed to the "protection and security of civilians" in the northern Tigray region where federal troops are battling regional forces, his office said Friday.

Abiy made the comments during a meeting with African Union peace envoys to discuss the conflict against the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), which broke out three weeks ago.

In a statement following the meeting with former presidents Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique and Kgalema Motlanthe of South Africa, Abiy said he appreciated "this gesture and ... the steadfast commitment this demonstrates to the principle of African solutions to African problems."

Even so, the government has a "constitutionally mandated responsibility to enforce (the) rule of law in the region and across the country," he added.

Read more: Ethiopia: 'People in Tigray are terrified'

People feel desperate

Abiy remains defiant

The envoys had been sent to Addis Ababa to help mediate in the conflict, but the prime minister has refused to negotiate with the TPLF and rebuffed calls for dialogue as "interference" in Ethiopia's internal affairs.

Abiy, the winner of last year's Nobel Peace Prize, announced on Thursday a "third and final phase" in his campaignagainst the TPLF.

Abiy accuses Tigrayan leaders of starting the war by attacking federal troops at a base in Tigray on November 4. The TPLF say the attack was a pre-emptive strike.

Hundreds of people have been killed by airstrikes and on ground fighting.

The violence has also displaced tens of thousands more, but there are grave fears for half a million civilians in Mekele, the regional capital, which the army says it has encircled ahead of a threatened attack.

The international community has warned such a strike could violate the rules of war and has called for urgent mediation. 

Food 'will run out next week'

The United Nations refugee agency, meanwhile, warned Friday that nearly 100,000 Eritrean refugees in Tigray will run out of food as early as next week if parties to the conflict do not allow humanitarian access.

The UNHCR says 96,000 Eritrean refugees are living in four camps in Tigray, with some reported to have been in the vicinity of recent clashes.

"They would be running out of food as of Monday — we are ready with our supplies trying to reach these populations,"
UNHCR spokesman Babar Baloch told a Geneva briefing, saying the estimate was based on calculations since the last distribution some weeks ago.

He called for "unhindered humanitarian access to reach them as soon as possible." 

Read more: Ethiopia: Who is Tigray's leader Debretsion Gebremichael?

The Tigrayan government, meanwhile, said Friday the federal army was bombarding towns and villages and inflicting heavy damage, although it did not specifically mention Mekele.

Tigrayans, who make up about 6% of Ethiopia's 115 million population, dominated the government until Abiy took power two years ago.

His government has put senior Tigrayan officials on trial for crimes such as corruption, torture and murder —  a move widely seen in the region as discrimination.

mm/jlw (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)

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