Ethiopia ‘alarmed and surprised’ by EU stance on Tigray conflict

Ethiopians celebrate the military and carry Amhara flags and Ethiopian national flags in the streets after a national call to stand in honour of the Ethiopian National Defence Forces, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia 17 November 2020. [EPA-EFE/STR]

Ethiopia has been “alarmed and surprised” by the EU’s equivocal stance on the conflict between Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government and the rebel leaders of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the country’s EU ambassador has told EURACTIV.

“There is a gap in understanding from the EU in what is going on in Ethiopia right now,” Ambassador Hirut Zemene said.

Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, launched military operations two weeks ago after accusing the TPLF, which runs Tigray, the northernmost region of Ethiopia which borders Eritrea and Sudan, of attacking a military camp.

On 17 November, federal forces started marching on Mekelle, the regional capital of Tigray, and the prime minister has issued a three-day ultimatum, which expires on Wednesday, for the fugitives to surrender. He has also appointed a temporary administration in Tigray.

Government officials say the TPLF leaders are using human shields.

The conflict follows months of increasing tension between the federal government and sections of the TPLF.

After lawmakers supporting the government delayed general elections planned for August and temporarily prolonged the Abiy administration’s mandate, the TPLF announced that it no longer recognised the government’s legitimacy. In September, the TPLF won 98% of the vote in unofficial regional elections dismissed as illegal by the federal government in Addis Ababa.

Federal elections are now scheduled to take place in May or June next year.

TPLF officials say the TPLF acted in ‘anticipatory self-defence’ when it opened the fighting with an attack on Northern Command bases controlled by the Ethiopian National Defence Force.

At a press conference following a meeting of EU foreign affairs ministers last Thursday (19 November), the bloc’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell, told reporters that “the situation in the Tigray region, the ethnic-targeted violence, the allegations of atrocities and the human rights abuses are of deep concern.”

“There is a real danger of an imminent and major humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia and in the close region,” said Borrell.

“We are very much concerned about these prospects and we have reiterated our calls for dialogue and to stop violence and return to dialogue.”

The federal government announced a six-month state of emergency in Tigray, while a telecommunications and electricity blackout, coupled with limited fuel and cash, has effectively blocked humanitarian access.

The fighting is also fast creating a humanitarian emergency as people fleeing Ethiopia’s Tigray region for eastern Sudan now exceed 33,000, according to the United Nations, which has also called for dialogue and a mediated settlement.

Abiy’s government has denied hitting civilians and insists it is only targeting TPLF leaders and facilities to restore law and order.

Ambassador Zemene told EURACTIV that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who received the Nobel peace prize in 2019, had sought to integrate the TPLF in his reform agenda. This has involved “a huge effort to open up the democratic process”, breaking up the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front which had governed as a one-party state for three decades.

The TPLF leaders had been “adamant” that they would not take part in the process, she added.

“The government was asking the TPLF to join the discussion but it gradually descended out of the dialogue. Conciliation attempts were made but it didn’t work,” the ambassador said, explaining why Abiy has ruled out negotiations.

“This is an internal situation. It is about ascertaining law and order. It is the sole responsibility of the government to conduct this operation. In no circumstances can a legitimate government be equated with a small group within a party that has gathered to create havoc in a country,” Ambassador Zemene told EURACTIV.

She added that any reports of attacks on civilians would be independently investigated and that the Ethiopian army was “carefully managing this operation” to minimise casualties.

“Purpose of the operation is disarming, bringing the perpetrators to justice, and a return to normalcy,” she concluded.

While the Abiy government has been disappointed by the EU’s stance, strong support has come from the United States.

“One of the aims of the TPLF hardcore leadership was to try to internationalise the conflict and inflame patriotism,” US Assistant Secretary for African affairs, Tibor Nagy, told reporters on Thursday (19 November)

“Mediation is not an end in itself. It’s a means to a goal. We want a quick end to the conflict. At this point, neither party is interested in mediation,” Nagy added.

Nagy said the TPLF campaign was an attempt “to depose a prime minister from power and reimpose the prominent position that they have had”.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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