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Home World News Ethiopia: What We Know About the War in the Tigray Region

Ethiopia: What We Know About the War in the Tigray Region

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Members of the Amhara militia that fight alongside federal and regional forces against northern region of Tigray, in Gondar, Ethiopia on Nov. 8.

Members of the Amhara militia that fight alongside federal and regional forces against northern region of Tigray, in Gondar, Ethiopia on Nov. 8.

Photo: eduardo soteras/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Long-simmering tensions between Ethiopia’s federal government and defiant authorities in its northern Tigray region erupted into military confrontation on Nov. 4 after the country’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, accused the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, or TPLF, of attacking a military base, killing soldiers and stealing artillery and military equipment. Hundreds of people have since been killed in a war that has now spilled into the wider Horn of Africa region after Tigrayan state militias fired rockets at targets in the capital of neighboring Eritrea over the weekend.

What is happening in the Tigray region?

Tensions have been building between the Tigrayan ethnic group, whose members constitute around 6% of Ethiopia’s 110 million people but have long dominated politics and business, and Mr. Ahmed, since he came to power in 2018 and pledged to reform the country’s politics. Last year, the TPLF refused to join Mr. Ahmed’s ruling coalition, which is seeking to transform the federal bloc that has ruled Ethiopia since 1991 into a more centralized political force. In September, the TPLF defied the government by holding regional elections that had been delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic. In recent months, Tigrayan officials and businessmen have been dismissed or detained in moves Mr. Ahmed said were a crackdown on corruption, but which many Tigrayans viewed as an attempt to silence and disempower them.

How did the war start?

The war began after TPLF militias attacked an Ethiopian National Defense Force base near the regional capital of Mekelle on Nov. 4. The attack became the casus belli for Mr. Ahmed, who quickly abandoned his previous conciliatory approach toward the restive state to deploy ground troops and the air force. Both sides are heavily armed: The TPLF has control of artillery, long-range rockets and weapons caches hidden across the region. Mr. Ahmed’s government declared a six-month state of emergency in Tigray and internet-access monitor NetBlocks reported that the internet had been shut down in the region and telecommunications appeared to be closed off.

Why is the United Nations warning about war crimes?

Amnesty International last week said in a report that hundreds of civilians were stabbed and hacked to death in the region, but the rights group said it hadn’t been able to independently confirm who was responsible. Local witnesses blamed the Tigrayan forces, but the TPLF blamed the Ethiopian government. There is other evidence of gruesome reprisal attacks: On Saturday night unknown gunmen killed 34 people in an ambush on a bus in western Ethiopia, according to the country’s human rights commission, adding that similar strikes are forcing people to flee their homes in other parts of Ethiopia. The United Nations said that if it was confirmed that a party to the conflict was responsible for the massacre reported by Amnesty International, it would amount to a war crime.

What has been the civilian toll?

More than 500 people have been killed in the conflict, according to state television, although the information blackout in Tigray makes independent verification of that number difficult and the death toll is likely far higher. More than 25,000 people from the region have fled across the border with Sudan.

Refugees from the Tigray region of Ethiopia region waited in Hamdayet, Sudan, on Nov. 14.

Refugees from the Tigray region of Ethiopia region waited in Hamdayet, Sudan, on Nov. 14.

Photo: Marwan Ali/Associated Press

What is the humanitarian situation on the ground?

The U.N. has warned of a looming humanitarian disaster with millions at risk amid dwindling supplies of food, fuel and other necessities. Before the hostilities began, Tigray already had 100,000 internally displaced people following a war with Eritrea that ended a decade ago, and 600,000 people were dependent on food aid. Days of airstrikes have destroyed the state’s electricity grid and hit fuel supplies, threatening to worsen the humanitarian crisis. The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has expressed increasing alarm at the rapidly deteriorating situation. “There is a risk this situation will spiral totally out of control, leading to heavy casualties and destruction, as well as mass displacement within Ethiopia itself and across borders,” she said.

What is the Tigray People’s Liberation Front?

The Tigray People’s Liberation Front is the ruling party in the state of Tigray. The Tigrayans came to power in 1991 as the leading force in a coalition that defeated the government of Marxist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam following a protracted war. The Tigrayan military also took the lead in Ethiopia’s 1998-2000 border war against neighboring Eritrea. The TPLF is a battle-hardened force, with an estimated 250,000 men under arms, and the bulk of Ethiopia’s military hardware under its control, including enough helicopter gunships, heavy field guns and tanks.

Debretsion Gebremichael, leader of Tigray’s regional government, seen in Mekele, Tigray region, Ethiopia June 26, 2019.

Debretsion Gebremichael, leader of Tigray’s regional government, seen in Mekele, Tigray region, Ethiopia June 26, 2019.

Photo: tiksa negeri/Reuters

How could this war destabilize the Horn of Africa region?

The Eritrean government, led by the autocrat Isaias Afwerki, has long been hostile to Tigray’s regional government for its role in a devastating border conflict between 1998 and 2000, despite signing a peace deal with Ethiopia last year. The Tigray state has accused Mr. Ahmed of doing the bidding of Mr. Afwerki, who has held power for 27 years and controls a vast standing army estimated at 200,000 people by the Central Intelligence Agency.

Why was Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed awarded a Nobel Peace Prize?

Mr. Ahmed was awarded the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize for his work toward ending a 20-year conflict with Eritrea and opening up one of Africa’s most entrenched one-party systems. A 44-year-old former army officer, he emerged as prime minister from an opaque power struggle in Ethiopia’s ruling party, but then upended politics in the East African nation with announcements that shattered political taboos: releasing thousands of political prisoners, legalizing opposition groups long classified as terrorists and ending the so-called border war with Eritrea.

Write to Nicholas Bariyo at nicholas.bariyo@wsj.com and Joe Parkinson at joe.parkinson@wsj.com

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