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Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Ethiopian leader vows to lead troops as war threatens to spread

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NAIROBI, Kenya – The Nobel Peace Prize has haunted Abiy Ahmed since he went to war a year ago, stoking outrage from critics who saw the 2019 award given to Ethiopia’s prime minister as a terrible mistake.

But this week, Abiy went one step further when he declared that he himself was heading to the front lines to lead the army while trying to avoid it. rebels advancing on the capital.

By Thursday, there was no sign of Mr. Abiy, who delegated the day-to-day running of Ethiopia, the second most populous country in Africa, to his deputy. His office declined to say where he was. But it added to the growing sense of urgency over a war that has displaced two million Ethiopians, sparking at least 400,000 in famine conditions other now threatens to tear the country apart.

Foreigners are leaving in droves, and the US-led diplomatic struggle to negotiate peace has stalled. Ethnic Tigrayan rebels, who began their march to Addis Ababa from northern Ethiopia in July, say they are now 120 miles by road from the capital.

As fears mount that the capital’s airport, one of Africa’s busiest, may close soon, two US military officials confirmed. a report that C-17 military cargo planes have been placed in neighboring Djibouti, in case an evacuation of US citizens is necessary.

Officials stressed that it is not likely to happen over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend. But beyond that, few were willing to predict what would come next.

Although his military has suffered a series of humiliating defeats, Mr. Abiy retains great public support. His challenge was publicly endorsed on Wednesday by an Ethiopian national hero, the two-time Olympic gold medalist. Haile Gebrselassie, who announced that he will also be heading to the front.

Gebrselaisse is 48 years old. But many young Ethiopians back the Abiy campaign and offer to defend Addis Ababa or join the battle in the north, even if they have never fired a gun.

“I’m following the prime minister,” said Sintayehu Mulgeta, 28, a taxi driver who has joined a newly formed vigilante group who prowls the streets of Addis Ababa at night, armed with sticks, searching for suspected rebels.

Mr. Sintayehu blamed the Popular Front for the Liberation of Tigray – who ruled Ethiopia for 27 years until 2018, and controls rebels now approaching the capital – for the death of his cousin during a political protest in 2016.

“Their hands are stained with my cousin’s blood,” he said. “I don’t want them back anymore.”

The belligerent stance reflected The jarring turn Mr. Abiy has taken for just two years, when he took to a stage in the Norwegian capital, Oslo, to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. “War is the epitome of hell,” Abiy said at the time.

However, in the past year, references to hellish suffering in Ethiopia have focused primarily on Tigray, the northern region where the forces of Mr. Abiy and his allies from Eritrea and the neighboring region of Amhara have faced allegations of massacres, sexual violence. and ethnic cleansing.

Tigrayans have also faced allegations of abuse, albeit on a lesser scale.

The Biden administration is leading a diplomatic effort to stop the fighting and prevent the collapse of a key US security partner in the Horn of Africa. Visiting Kenya last week, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken discussed the crisis with President Uhuru Kenyatta.

But the Tigrayans have continued to advance south, this week claiming to be out of Debre Sina, a key city, perched on a high hill, some 120 miles from Addis Ababa by road.

The Ethiopian government has wavered between ridiculing foreign media for exaggerating its losses and offering dramatic gestures that seem to indicate both vulnerability and strength.

Before heading to the battlefield this week, Abiy was a time when “martyrdom is needed.”

On Wednesday, his government expelled four Irish diplomats, out of six in the country, over Ireland’s outspoken criticism of Abiy’s actions. They joined a list of foreign journalists, humanitarian workers and senior United Nations officials who have been forced to leave Ethiopia since the summer, when the tide of war began to turn.

The security forces have been involved in a fierce roundup of ethnic Tigrayans which has seen thousands arrested, many crammed into makeshift detention centers.

At daily recruitment ceremonies, older Ethiopians listen intently to speeches denouncing the Tigrayan “junta,” as the TPLF is called, when younger men and women volunteer to address the front lines.

“I don’t want to see the junta in power again,” said Tilahun Mamo, 32, a parking attendant who leads a group of 30 vigilantes in the city’s Bole neighborhood, and expect to be called up for war.

Deep-seated fears of the Tigrayan government underpin some of Abiy’s support. During its 27 years of political rule, the TPLF brought economic progress to Ethiopia, but it also rigged elections, imprisoned and tortured critics, and stifled the free press.

But analysts say Abiy also participated in a concerted campaign to smear the Tigrayans, which senior UN officials warned could lead to ethnic or even genocidal violence.

“Why would I sit and wait for the terrorists to come and take my city?” said Dereje Tegenu, a 42-year-old security guard and member of a vigilante group in Addis Ababa. “I’ll go fight them.”

Ethnic dividing lines are most vivid among the Oromo, who make up about a third of Ethiopia’s 110 million people. Although Abiy, whose father is Oromo, came to power in 2018 in a wave of street protests led by angry Oromo youth, many in that movement now say he betrayed his cause.

Some have taken up arms against him, notably through the Oromo Liberation Army, which has joined the Tigrayans in the march on Addis.

In a telephone interview, Jaal Marroo, the leader of the Oromo group, dismissed Abiy’s promise to go into battle as “a joke” and predicted that the country was “headed for chaos.”

“The government is frustrated and uses human waves to play its last card: mobilize ethnic groups,” he said.

Oromo political prisoners say their lives are in danger. Jawar Mohammed and Bekele Gerba, two prominent Oromo leaders jailed last year, issued a statement through their families this week saying they fear prison guards are trying to kill them.

This week, France and Germany joined a list of Western countries urging their citizens to leave Ethiopia as soon as possible, while continuing to operate regular flights. The US Embassy ordered all non-essential personnel to leave, and this week warned of the potential for unspecified “terrorist attacks” in Ethiopia.

At a press conference on Thursday, an Ethiopian government spokesman denounced the US warning as “false information.”

The reports were contributed by Eric schmitt in San Francisco and a New York Times reporter in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

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