Ethiopia’s government announced Monday it had recaptured two strategic towns from rebel fighters, the latest in a rapid series of battlefield victories claimed by forces loyal to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.
Dessie and Kombolcha lie in the Amhara region on a key highway to Addis Ababa, and their reported takeover by the Tigray People’s Liberation Force (TPLF) at the end of October had sparked fears the rebels would march on the capital.
The government’s communications service said on Twitter that the two cities had been “freed by the joint gallant security forces” that had also taken control of several other towns on the eastern front.
The state-run Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation quoted Abiy as saying the rebels had sustained “heavy losses and (were) unable to cope with the strike by allied forces”.
“The enemy will be hit and the victory will continue,” he said.
Last week, the government said pro-Abiy forces had recaptured the UNESCO World Heritage site of Lalibela, which had fallen to TPLF fighters in August, as well as the town of Shewa Robit which lies only 220 kilometres (135 miles) from Addis Ababa by road.
The latest territorial gains claimed by Abiy’s government mark another sharp shift in the 13-month war that has triggered a desperate humanitarian crisis in the north of Africa’s second most populous nation.
International alarm has been mounting over the escalation in fighting in recent weeks, with jittery foreign governments telling their nationals to leave the country as soon as possible.
Abiy — who won the Nobel Peace Prize two years ago — announced last month that he would be heading to the battleground following a series of advances claimed by the rebels, as fighting reportedly raged on at least three fronts.
Since his declaration, the government has announced the recapture of several small towns, including Lalibela which is famed for its 12th-century rock-hewn churches.
In a statement on Sunday, TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael denied the government was scoring major victories, saying the rebels were making strategic territorial adjustments and remained undefeated.
“The enemy is getting stronger so we also have to be strong and intensify our struggle,” he said.
– Risk of ‘fracture’ –
The conflict, which erupted in November 2020, saw a dramatic turnaround five weeks ago when the TPLF claimed the capture of Dessie and Kombolcha, which lie about 400 kilometres northeast of the capital by road.
The government declared a nationwide state of emergency in early November but has described the gains by the TPLF as overstated and insisted that Addis Ababa is secure.
Much of northern Ethiopia is under a communications blackout and access for journalists is restricted, making battlefield claims difficult to independently verify.
The war broke out when Abiy sent troops into Ethiopia’s northernmost region of Tigray to topple the TPLF after months of seething tensions with the group that had dominated politics for three decades before he took office.
He said the move was in response to attacks on army camps by the TPLF, and vowed a swift victory.
But the rebels mounted a shock comeback, recapturing most of Tigray by June including the capital Mekele before expanding into the neighbouring regions of Amhara and Afar.
The fighting has killed thousands of people, displaced more than two million and driven hundreds of thousands into famine-like conditions, according to UN estimates.
There have also been reports of massacres and mass rapes by both sides.
But so far, intense diplomatic efforts led by the African Union to try to reach a ceasefire have failed to achieve any breakthrough.
Last week, the UN undersecretary for humanitarian affairs, Martin Griffiths, warned that Ethiopia risked descending into sectarian violence that could “fracture” the country if the conflict spread to Addis Ababa.
Earlier Monday, the United States and Western allies sounded the alarm over reports the Ethiopian government has unlawfully detained large numbers of citizens on ethnic grounds and called for the arrests to “cease immediately”.
“Many of these acts likely constitute violations of international law,” Australia, Canada, Denmark, the Netherlands and Britain, along with the United States, said in a statement.
“Individuals are being arrested and detained without charges or a court hearing and are reportedly being held in inhumane conditions.”
The statement cited reports by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission and Amnesty International, which “describe widespread arrests of ethnic Tigrayans,” including the elderly and young children.