NAIROBI, Kenya – Ethiopia declared a state of emergency on Tuesday and called on its citizens to pick up arms and prepare to defend the capital as rebel forces from the northern Tigray region pressed south in direction of the city after the capture of two key cities.
The Tigrayans, who have been fighting the government for a year, have joined forces with another rebel group as they advance in the capital, Addis Ababa. Foreign officials monitoring the fighting said there were signs that several Ethiopian army units had collapsed or retreated.
The state of emergency reflected the rapid evolution of a metastatic war that threatens to tear apart Ethiopia, Africa’s second most populous country.
It also marked another dismal turning point in the fortunes of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate whose international reputation was shaken by a war which led to reports of human rights violations, massacres and famine.
A year ago, in the early hours of November 4, Mr. Abiy launched a military campaign in the northern Tigray region, in the hope of defeating the regional ruling party, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Tigray, his most disturbing political enemy. But after promising a swift, if not bloodless campaign, Mr. Abiy was quickly drawn into a military quagmire.
The Ethiopian army suffered a major defeat in June when it was forced to withdraw from Tigray, and several thousand of its soldiers were taken prisoner. Now the fighting is moving rapidly towards Mr. Abiy.
In recent days, Tigrayan rebels have captured the towns of Dessie and Kombolcha, just 160 miles northeast of the capital. A United Nations official said Tigrayan forces were seen moving further south of Kombolcha on Tuesday.
Under the state of emergency, Mr. Abiy has extensive powers to arrest and detain critics, impose curfews and restrict the media. Any citizen over the age of 18 could be called upon to fight, Justice Minister Gedion Timothewos told a press conference.
“Those who have weapons will be forced to hand them over to the government,” he said. The state of emergency will last six months, the government said.
Hours earlier, the city administration of Addis Ababa called on citizens to use their weapons to defend their neighborhoods. House-to-house searches were being carried out in search of Tigrayan sympathizers, he said in a statement.
The announcements added to a growing sense of foreboding in the city, where tensions built up for days as news spread of Tigrayan military advances. A taxi driver named Dereje, who in the capital’s tense climate refused to give his second name, said he intended to join the fight.
“I am not going to sit in my house and wait for the enemy,” he said. “I will fight for my children and my country. “
But a teacher, who declined to give his name, said he had lost faith in the Ethiopian government. “They lied to us by saying that the TPLF had been defeated,” he said, referring to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Tigray. “I am terribly worried about what is going to happen. May God help us.”
President Biden, who has threatened to impose sanctions on Ethiopia if it does not move towards peace talks, said on Tuesday he would revoke Ethiopia’s trade privileges, including access in duty free in the United States due to “gross violations of internationally recognized human rights”.
In a separate briefing, Jeffrey Feltman, the Biden administration’s envoy to the Horn of Africa, told reporters that the escalation of the conflict could have “dire consequences” for the unity of Ethiopia and its ties to the United States.
Billene Seyoum, spokesperson for Mr. Abiy, did not respond to a request for comment.
Ethiopia’s Ministry of Trade and Regional Integration said in a statement that the decision to revoke trade privileges would nullify economic gains in Ethiopia “and have an unfair impact and harm women and children.” Ethiopia is committed to bringing perpetrators of serious human rights violations to justice, he added.
The deteriorating situation in Ethiopia has raised alarm bells across the region, with fears the fighting could spread to neighboring countries such as Kenya, or send waves of refugees across borders.
Darling to the West after winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019, Mr. Abiy has become increasingly defensive over the past year as war has spread out of Tigray, and formerly close allies l ‘have come under fierce criticism.
This criticism recently focused on Ethiopia’s punitive blockade of Tigray, which prevented most supplies of food and medicine from reaching an area where the United Nations estimates 5.2 million people are in need. urgent aid and 400,000 live in conditions close to famine.
After the United States threatened Mr. Abiy’s government with sanctions in September, he accused the West of neocolonial bias and expelled seven senior UN officials, including a humanitarian aid coordinator in Tigray .
Last month, the Ethiopian military launched an offensive against Tigrayan forces that has expanded to include airstrikes against the region’s besieged capital, Mekelle. In recent days, Mr. Abiy has blamed his losses on unidentified foreigners who he says are fighting alongside the Tigrayans.
“Black and white nationals of non-Ethiopian origin participated in the war,” he said.
In Addis Ababa, security forces have launched another round-up of Tigrayans, stoking fears of ethnic reprisals in the capital as the rebels approached.
International efforts to coax the parties to the negotiating table have come to naught. Mr. Abiy has continued his military operations, despite mounting evidence that his army is under overwhelming pressure.
The Tigrayans, for their part, say they are fighting to break a siege that is strangling their region and starving their people.
Western pressure on Abiy has amounted to little more than “drops,” General Tsadkan Gebretensae, the rebels’ top strategist, told The New York Times last month. “We need more than drops.”
Human rights groups have also accused Tigrayan fighters of abuses, including the killing of Eritrean refugees, but not on the same scale as Ethiopian troops. The Ethiopian government has accused Tigrayan fighters of killing “young residents” in Kombolcha in recent days, but has provided no evidence.
They have been pushing south to the Amhara region since July in a fierce battle that has been fought largely out of sight due to internet outages and reporting restrictions.
The breakthrough came with the capture this weekend of Dessie and Kombolcha, towns strategically located on a north-south highway that have become the backbone of a war that could determine Ethiopia’s future.
As they push south, the Tigrayans have linked up with the Oromo Liberation Army, a much smaller rebel group fighting for the rights of the Oromo, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group.
After years of fighting in the bush, the OLA seems to be settling in Ethiopian cities.
Odaa Tarbii, an OLA spokesperson, said on Tuesday he had captured a town 120 miles north of Addis Ababa and is expected to start moving south alongside the Tigrayans in two or three days.
For much of the war, Mr. Abiy enjoyed the unwavering support of neighboring Eritrea, whose fighters entered Tigray in the first weeks of the conflict in late 2020, and have been blamed for many of the worst atrocities against civilians.
But in recent weeks, for reasons that are unclear, Eritreans have not been seen anywhere in the latest fighting, Tigrayan and Western officials have said.
Getachew Reda, spokesperson for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Tigray, said the Ethiopian army fell into disarray as it retreated south, leaving behind heavily armed ethnic militia bands.
“The command and control structure has collapsed,” he said, in an account widely confirmed by two Western officials who could not be identified due to diplomatic sensitivities.
If the Tigrayans continue to push south, officials added, Mr. Abiy could face immense pressure from within his political camp, as well as on the battlefield.
Lara Jakes contributed reporting from Washington, and a New York Times employee contributed reporting from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.