Heavy fighting kills 20 in region bordering Tigray: official
At least 20 civilians were killed in "heavy fighting" between rebels and pro-government forces in the Afar region of Ethiopia, and tens of thousands were displaced, bordering war-torn Tigray, an AFP official said Thursday.
The ongoing clashes in Afar show the potential for the eight-month-old conflict in Ethiopia to extend well beyond Tigray, where thousands of people have been killed and hundreds of thousands starved, according to the United Nations.
Tigrayan rebels carried out "very limited action" against special forces and militias from the Oromia region, the largest region of Ethiopia, in Afar over the weekend, which a spokesman described as "very limited action".
Mohammed Hussen, an official with Ethiopia's national civil protection agency based in Afar, told AFP on Thursday that the operations were on a larger scale and civilians were caught in the crossfire.
"The heavy fighting is still going on. So a total of around 70,000 are directly affected and displaced ... More than 20 civilians are dead."
"They (the rebels) are trying to subdue the Afars. Now the federal forces are joining the Afar special forces, the local Afar communities, the Afar militias. In the last few days the Afars have been fighting and protecting themselves."
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent troops to Tigray last November to oust the region's ruling party, the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF).
Although the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate declared victory later this month, TPLF leaders remained on the run and the fighting continued.
The war took a breathtaking turn last month when pro-TPLF fighters retook the Tigray capital of Mekele and Abiy declared a unilateral ceasefire.
Clashes continued, however, particularly in west and south Tigray, disputed areas that were occupied at the beginning of the war by troops from the Ethiopian region of Amhara, which borders Tigray in the south.
Officials from six regions and the city of Dire Dawa have since announced that they will be sending troops to support government troops.
- Help interrupted -
The fighting in Afar has already interrupted the distribution of aid to Tigray.
A World Food Program (WFP) convoy with ten vehicles was attacked in Afar over the weekend, prompting the UN agency to discontinue convoys from the regional capital Semera.
The route via Semera to Tigray had become critical for aid deliveries in recent weeks after two important bridges along other routes were destroyed at the end of June.
A UN security notice inspected by the AFP showed that heavy fighting with Afar special forces and federal soldiers against the TPLF took place in the districts of Awra and Ewa.
These districts are east of South Tigray and North Amhara, where thousands of militia fighters have mobilized in the past few days.
The road to Ethiopia via the Djibouti port, east of Afar, is vital to the inland and has sparked speculation that Tigrayan rebels might try to stifle it.
Mohammed said Thursday the street was "open" and "very safe", adding that any claims to the contrary were TPLF "propaganda".
- Pro Army rally -
In the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, tens of thousands of people gathered in central Meskel Square on Thursday to demonstrate their support for the army.
Visitors to the rally hoisted signs denouncing the TPLF as "Ethiopia's cancer" and proclaiming that the army "stands for truth and justice".
Addis Ababa Mayor Adanech Abiebe, whose office organized the rally, said the war would "end with a victory".
She accused the TPLF of collaborating with foreign media "to defame the name of our army".
Protesters also criticized "interference" by foreign media and diplomats.
"Ethiopia is a sovereign country and it is forbidden to interfere with the sovereignty of Ethiopia," 39-year-old Ababa Nega told AFP.
"The people out here are against it."
rcb / txw / gd
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