In this Saturday, May 8, 2021 file photo, Ethiopian government soldiers ride in the back of a truck on a road near Agula, north of Mekele, in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia. (AP)
ADDIS ABABA: International alarm mounted on Tuesday over the escalating war in Ethiopia as Tigrayan rebels claimed to be edging closer to the capital Addis Ababa and more foreign citizens were told to leave.
US envoy Jeffrey Feltman spoke of some progress in efforts to reach a diplomatic settlement to end the brutal year-long conflict but warned it risked being jeopardized by “alarming developments” on the ground.
The United Nations said it had ordered the immediate evacuation of family members of international staff while France became the latest Western government to tell its citizens to leave Ethiopia.
The rebel Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) claimed this week it had taken a town just 220 kilometers (135 miles) from the capital, although battlefield claims are hard to verify because of a communications blackout.
On Monday, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed vowed he would head to the battlefront to lead his soldiers in what the government has described as an “existential war” in Africa’s second most populous nation.
“We are now in the final stages of saving Ethiopia,” said Abiy, who only two years ago was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for securing a peace deal with neighboring Eritrea.
Thousands of people have been killed since fighting erupted in November 2020, triggering a desperate humanitarian crisis that the UN says has left hundreds of thousands on the brink of famine and displaced more than two million.
The latest developments cast doubt on hopes of an end to the conflict, which has stoked fears it could sow wider instability in the Horn of Africa region.
“While there’s some nascent progress, that is highly at risk of being outpaced by the military escalation on the two sides,” said Feltman, in Ethiopia this week along with his African Union counterpart Olusegun Obasanjo to broker a cease-fire.
A scramble to evacuate foreigners was continuing, three weeks after the government declared a state of emergency and ordered residents to prepare to defend the capital.
An internal UN security order seen by AFP said family members of international staff should be evacuated by November 25.
“Given the security situation in the country and out of an abundance of caution, the United Nations has decided to reduce its footprint in the country by temporarily relocating all eligible dependents,” said UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric, putting the number of people affected at a few hundred.
France also advised its citizens to leave “without delay,” following similar adviseries by the US and the UK.
But officials in Addis Ababa said at a briefing to diplomats that security forces were working to keep the city safe.
“The propaganda and terror talk being disseminated by the Western media fully contradicts the peaceful state of the city on the ground, so the diplomatic community shouldn’t feel any worry or fear,” said Kenea Yadeta, head of the Addis Ababa Peace and Security Bureau.
The conflict erupted when Abiy sent troops into the northernmost Tigray region to topple the TPLF after months of seething tensions with the party that had dominated national politics for three decades before he took power in 2018.
Abiy said the move was in response to TPLF attacks on federal army camps and promised a swift victory, but by late June the rebels had retaken most of Tigray including its capital Mekele.
Since then the TPLF has pushed into the neighboring Afar and Amhara regions and joined forces with a number of other groups including the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA).
Earlier this week the TPLF claimed control of Shewa Robit, just 220 kilometers northeast of Addis Ababa by road.
The government has not responded to requests about the status of the town.
Some TPLF fighters were also believed to have reached Debre Sina, about 30 kilometers closer to Addis Ababa, diplomats briefed on the security situation said.
In Pretoria, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa and Kenyan counterpart Uhuru Kenyatta added to calls for the warring parties to commit to an immediate cease-fire.
But Abiy himself has cast doubts on the prospects for a peaceful solution.
“Starting tomorrow, I will mobilize to the front to lead the defense forces,” he said in a statement on Monday.
“Those who want to be among the Ethiopian children who will be hailed by history, rise up for your country today. Let’s meet at the front.”
Meanwhile, the United Nations on Tuesday launched a major drive to deliver food aid to two towns in northern Ethiopia despite the looting of warehouses.
The UN’s World Food Programme said the operation would serve more than 450,000 people over the next two weeks in the towns of Kombolcha and Dessie which lie at a strategic crossroads on the main highway to Addis Ababa.