Ethiopia declares war on Tigray region separatists

The UN, EU and African Union call for calm as forces mobilise

This frame grab from a video obtained from the Ethiopian Public Broadcaster (EBC) on November 4, 2020, shows Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed saying that he is ordering a military response to a deadly attack by the ruling party of Tigray, a region locked in a long-running dispute with Addis Ababa, on a camp housing federal troops. RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO /Ethiopian Public Broadcaster (EBC) " - NO MARKETING - NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS

Ethiopia's military said Thursday it was at "war" with the ruling party of the country's northern Tigray region, as fighting continued for a second day and troops reportedly amassed at the region's borders.

Heated rhetoric from both sides and fresh violence in western Tigray suggested Africa's second most populous country was heading for an extended conflict in a region long at odds with Addis Ababa and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, the winner of last year's Nobel Peace Prize.

A Tigray Regional Police Officer stands guard during the funeral ceremony of Ethiopia's Army Chief of Staff Seare Mekonnen in Mekele, Tigray Region, Ethiopia une 26, 2019. Picture taken June 26, 2019. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

"Our country has entered into a war it didn't anticipate. This war is shameful, it is senseless," Berhanu Jula, the deputy army chief, told a press conference in Addis Ababa.

Debretsion said fighting persisted in western Tigray, and that federal troops were gathering on the border in neighbouring Amhara and Afar regions. "This is a war we're conducting to preserve our existence," he added.

Diplomats in Addis Ababa said there were likely casualties on both sides, but Ethiopian officials did not disclose them.

The situation is so dire that it's really about the doing. A solution is not going to be found on Twitter

Internet and phone connections in Tigray were cut for a second day, making any casualty tolls difficult to verify.

Lawmakers in Addis Ababa on Thursday unanimously endorsed a six-month state of emergency in Tigray that had been announced the previous day by Mr Abiy's government.

According to Ethiopia's constitution, under a state of emergency the government has "all necessary power to protect the country's peace and sovereignty" and can suspend some "political and democratic rights".

A senior government official told AFP that in Tigray this could lead to a curfew, searches without warrants, transportation and communications restrictions and the detention of "any person that [officials] suspect is taking part in illegal activities that threaten the constitutional order".

FILE - In this Sept. 9, 2020 file photo, a member of Tigray Special Forces casts his vote in a local election in the regional capital Mekelle, in the Tigray region of Ethiopia. Ethiopia's prime minister on Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2020 ordered the military to confront the Tigray regional government after he said it attacked a military base overnight, citing months of "provocation and incitement" and declaring that "the last red line has been crossed." (AP Photo, File)

The state of emergency could also be extended beyond Tigray if needed, the official said.

Ahead of Thursday's vote, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, the national rights body, pointed to the need to maintain key services and supplies for civilians.

Lawmakers "should in particular consider ensuring humanitarian access and support including for food, medicine and other essential civilian services to avoid a complete blockage of communication and transport facilities," it said.

The fighting in Tigray has drawn expressions of concern from the UN, the US and the EU.

An official at the African Union told AFP on Thursday that the body, headquartered in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, was reaching out to "all actors" to try to bring a swift end to the conflict.

"The African Union is engaged in shuttle diplomacy in the region and with all actors at the moment to try to find some sort of solution. But it's clearly very sensitive right now," the official said.

"I know that everybody is clamouring for public pronouncements. The situation is so dire that it's really about the doing. A solution is not going to be found on Twitter."

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo condemned the Tigray attacks in a tweet Thursday.

However multiple diplomats said both Mr Abiy's government and the Tigray side did not currently seem open to negotiations.

Mr Abiy's government has not revealed a timeline or a clear military objective for the campaign, though a spokesman for a newly-formed crisis committee said Wednesday the goal was to "liberate" the region from the Tigray People's Liberation Front.

The Tigrayan front dominated politics in Ethiopia for nearly three decades before Mr Abiy came to power in 2018 on the strength of anti-government protests.

Under Mr Abiy, Tigrayan leaders have complained of being unfairly targeted in corruption prosecutions, removed from top positions and broadly scapegoated for the country's woes.

In previous weeks, tensions had been rising over control of military assets in the region.

The Tigrayan front claims the military's Northern Command has broken with Mr Abiy, though Mr Abiy's office has dismissed this as false.