Ethiopia: What We Know About the War in the Tigray Region

Long-simmering tensions between Ethiopia’s federal government and defiant authorities in its northern Tigray region erupted into military confrontation on Nov. 4 after the country’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, accused the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, or TPLF, of attacking a military base, killing soldiers and stealing artillery and military equipment. Hundreds of people have since been killed in a war that has now spilled into the wider Horn of Africa region after Tigrayan state militias fired rockets at targets in the capital of neighboring Eritrea over the weekend.

What is happening in the Tigray region?

Tensions have been building between the Tigrayan ethnic group, whose members constitute around 6% of Ethiopia’s 110 million people but have long dominated politics and business, and Mr. Ahmed, since he came to power in 2018 and pledged to reform the country’s politics. Last year, the TPLF refused to join Mr. Ahmed’s ruling coalition, which is seeking to transform the federal bloc that has ruled Ethiopia since 1991 into a more centralized political force. In September, the TPLF defied the government by holding regional elections that had been delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic. In recent months, Tigrayan officials and businessmen have been dismissed or detained in moves Mr. Ahmed said were a crackdown on corruption, but which many Tigrayans viewed as an attempt to silence and disempower them.

How did the war start?

The war began after TPLF militias attacked an Ethiopian National Defense Force base near the regional capital of Mekelle on Nov. 4. The attack became the casus belli for Mr. Ahmed, who quickly abandoned his previous conciliatory approach toward the restive state to deploy ground troops and the air force. Both sides are heavily armed: The TPLF has control of artillery, long-range rockets and weapons caches hidden across the region. Mr. Ahmed’s government declared a six-month state of emergency in Tigray and internet-access monitor NetBlocks reported that the internet had been shut down in the region and telecommunications appeared to be closed off.

Why is the United Nations warning about war crimes?

Amnesty International last week said in a report that hundreds of civilians were stabbed and hacked to death in the region, but the rights group said it hadn’t been able to independently confirm who was responsible. Local witnesses blamed the Tigrayan forces, but the TPLF blamed the Ethiopian government. There is other evidence of reprisal attacks: On Saturday night, unknown gunmen killed 34 people in an ambush on a bus in western Ethiopia, according to the country’s human-rights commission, which said similar strikes are forcing people to flee their homes in other parts of Ethiopia. The United Nations said that if it was confirmed that a party to the conflict was responsible for the massacre reported by Amnesty International, it would amount to a war crime.

What has been the civilian toll?

More than 500 people have been killed in the conflict, according to state television, although the information blackout in Tigray makes independent verification of that number difficult and the death toll is likely far higher. More than 25,000 people from the region have fled across the border with Sudan.

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