Attacks by Tigray fighters in Ethiopia’s Afar region have forced over 54,000 people from their homes, an official said on Thursday, and refugees in a camp in southern Tigray described heavy clashes nearby.
Tens of thousands of people, meanwhile, rallied in the capital to support Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who has faced criticism for his handling of a conflict that threatens to undermine stability in Africa’s second-most populous nation.
Tigray fighters, who want the Ethiopian government to accept their terms before talks on a ceasefire can begin, have taken control of three districts in the Afar region this week, according to Afar regional spokesperson Ahmed Koloyta.
The region is of strategic importance because the main road and railway linking Addis Ababa, landlocked Ethiopia’s capital, to the seaport of Djibouti run through it.
Ahmed quoted some of the displaced people as saying Tigray fighters had burned houses, looted properties, and killed civilians. He provided no evidence and Reuters could not verify his claims independently.
Getachew Reda, spokesman for the Tigray forces, did not immediately return calls seeking comment on the accusations.
Debretsion Gebremichael, leader of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), told Reuters via satellite phone earlier on Thursday that Tigray forces were in the Afar region and they planned to target forces from the neighboring Amhara region, which has been fighting on behalf of the government.
He was not immediately reachable for comment on Ahmed’s claims.
Djibouti found the situation in Ethiopia “very worrying”, Alexi Mohamed, chief adviser to the president, told Reuters.
In southern Tigray, some Eritreans in the Adi Harush refugee camp said there had been heavy fighting nearby on Thursday morning.
“We are very afraid. The children are crying and we are praying,” one told Reuters by telephone, declining to be named for fear of retaliation.
Tens of thousands of refugees from Eritrea, who were in Tigray before the war began, are trapped in two camps on the frontlines – Mai Aini and Adi Harush.
War erupted in November between the TPLF, Tigray’s ruling party, and the military. Three weeks later, the government declared victory when it captured the regional capital Mekelle, but the TPLF kept fighting.
At the end of June, the TPLF seized back control of Mekelle and most of Tigray after the government withdrew soldiers. Since then, Ethiopia’s other nine regions announced they were sending forces to support the military against Tigray fighters.
On Thursday, tens of thousands of Ethiopians filled Meskel Square in the capital for a rally to support Abiy, whom many said was being unfairly criticized by foreign nations.
“Enemies are scared of our reforms and are working jointly and tirelessly to disturb our sovereignty, to disrupt our national unity and our journey to prosperity,” Adanech Abebe, mayor of Addis Ababa, told the crowd.
Participants waved signs condemning the TPLF as a “cancer” and showing support for Abiy. Some commended him for filling the $4 billion Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), which has caused tension with Sudan and Egypt over water rights.
Getachew, the TPLF spokesman, told Reuters via satellite phone on Tuesday that Tigray forces would do “whatever it takes” to get the government to accept their conditions for ceasefire negotiations.
These include the full withdrawal of government troops and their allies from Tigray’s pre-war borders and the restoration of services such as electricity, telecommunications, transport links, and banking.
On Sunday, gunmen attacked a United Nations’ World Food Program truck convoy, halting the movement of food aid into Tigray.
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