A day after Ethiopia declared victory in its 25-day military march through the rebel region of Tigray, reports from the war zone suggest the fighting is far from over and the battle is turning into a guerrilla conflict.
Tigrayan TV, claiming that Tigrayan forces shot down an Ethiopian warplane, showed video footage of the wreckage of a burning plane and a captured Ethiopian pilot to substantiate this claim. The Tigrayan leaders also said their forces had regained control of the historic city of Aksum, which the Ethiopian military captured weeks ago.
The reports were impossible to confirm, as Ethiopia shut down all communications and banned all independent media in the region. But diplomats confirmed a separate report that Tigrayan missiles were fired at targets in neighboring Eritrea on Saturday evening, hours after Ethiopia declared victory.
The rocket attack, which led to six reported explosions in Eritrea’s capital Asmara, showed the rebels still retained an arsenal of heavy weapons and the ability to use them.
Ethiopia’s civil war in Tigray: what you need to know about who is fighting who and what it has done so far
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced on Saturday that his forces “fully” controlled Tigray’s capital, Mekele, a city of about 500,000 inhabitants. It was the “last phase” of the military offensive, he said. “The main transaction has been successfully concluded.”
Mr Abiy said his forces are now pursuing “criminals” from the region’s long-time ruling Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), with the intention of arresting and bringing them to justice. .
The TPLF, which had been Ethiopia’s dominant faction for nearly three decades before Mr. Abiy took office as prime minister in 2018, is increasingly arguing with him over issues of regional autonomy and of political power. He held a regional election in defiance of his orders this year.
The TPLF, with around 250,000 combatants in command, has a long history of guerrilla warfare in the mountainous terrain of Tigray. He led a rebellion against the Ethiopian Marxist regime in the 1970s and 1980s, ultimately ousting the regime in 1991, and then playing a key role in a brutal war against Eritrea in the late 1990s.
Prior to the Ethiopian assault on Mekele, many observers feared the attack was a bloodbath. Artillery bombardments were reported in the city on Saturday morning, raising fears of massive damage and injury. However, it seems that the TPLF chose to withdraw from the city and continue the fight elsewhere.
Mr. Abiy’s declaration of victory made no mention of civilian casualties in the city. But a detailed report Sunday from the International Committee of the Red Cross made it clear that the assault had taken heavy casualties – including so many deaths that there was a shortage of body bags.
“Local hospitals and health facilities are critically short of medical supplies,” the ICRC said.
At a large city hospital, Ayder’s referral hospital, around 80% of patients suffered trauma from the fighting, and the influx of wounded forced the hospital to suspend many other medical services, said. the ICRC.
He said the hospital was running out of body bags and food.
“The hospital is critically short of sutures, antibiotics, blood thinners, painkillers and even gloves,” said Maria Soledad, ICRC chief of operations in Ethiopia, who was in Mekele on Sunday.
But the damage goes far beyond the regional capital. About 1,000 Eritrean refugees have traveled to Mekele to search for food due to problems in their camps in the town of Shire, the ICRC said.
A report written last week by an ICRC field team described the damage in the region of northern Amhara and western Tigray, where around 2,000 people had fled to makeshift camps. “We came across a destroyed village,” the report said. “A house was on fire. The area was completely deserted.
Despite weeks of demands on the Ethiopian government, the United Nations has failed to secure humanitarian access to Tigray to deliver food and other supplies, which are quickly running out.
Almost 45,000 refugees have crossed the border between Tigray and Sudan. But the flow of refugees has been sharply reduced in recent days, with reports that Ethiopian troops are blocking their route.
Human rights and refugee groups in Tigray have alleged that both sides committed atrocities during the war, including the killing of hundreds of civilians. Ethiopian state television, in a report on Sunday, said 70 graves had been discovered in the town of Humera in Tigray, with some of the graves containing multiple bodies.
In total, thousands of civilians and soldiers have died since the fighting began in Tigray on November 4, according to a report by the International Crisis Group, an independent organization.
“Ethiopia’s partners should continue to send the message that the answer to the country’s deep political loopholes will not come on the battlefield,” Crisis Group said in a statement just before the Ethiopian assault on Mekele.
Dino Mahtani, deputy director of the Africa program at Crisis Group, said on Sunday that Ethiopian forces appeared to have avoided “the worst-case scenario – a whole bloodbath in Mekele”.
But a protracted insurgency is still possible in Tigray, and ruling the region will be difficult if other ethnic groups claim the right to contested land in Tigray, he said on Twitter. Amhara militias are already supporting the Ethiopian army’s offensive in Tigray.
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