Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed says he has ordered a military response to an “attack” by the ruling party of the Tigray region on a camp housing federal troops.
Details on the alleged attack in Tigray were not immediately available on Tuesday.
In a post on social media post, Abiy accused the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) of attacking a military camp in the region and trying “to loot” military assets.
“Our defence forces … have been ordered to carry out their mission to save the country. The final point of the red line has been crossed. Force is being used as the last measure to save the people and the country,” he said.
Abiy gave no indication of the nature of response but observers have for weeks been warning that a standoff between the government and the TPLF could spill over into violence.
On Wednesday, Tigray’s local government said that the Northern Command of the federal military, which is stationed in the region, had defected to its side. Addis Ababa dismissed the claim as “false information”.
Internet access monitor NetBlocks said that the Internet had been shut down in the region, confirming reports that authorities had shut down telephone and Internet services.
The TPLF was the dominant force in the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a multiethnic, four-party coalition that had run the country for almost 30 years before Abiy rose to power in 2018 on the back of widespread, nationwide anti-government protests.
Last year, the TPLF split from the EPRDF when it refused to merge along with the three other coalition parties into the newly formed Prosperity Party (PP) under Abiy.
Tigrayan leaders have complained of being unfairly singled out in corruption prosecutions, removed from top positions and broadly scapegoated for the country’s woes.
Ethiopia was due to hold national elections in August, but the country’s poll body ruled in March that all voting would need to be postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Legislators then voted to extend officials’ mandates – which would have expired in early October – but Tigrayan leaders rejected this and went ahead with regional elections in September that Abiy’s government deemed illegal.
Now each side sees the other as illegitimate, and federal MPs have ruled Abiy’s government should cut off contact with – and funding to – Tigray’s leadership.
In recent days, tensions have risen over who controls federal military personnel and assets in Tigray.
Last week Tigray blocked a general appointed by Abiy from assuming his military post, saying the Ethiopian prime minister no longer had the authority to make such moves.
Tigrayan officials have said in recent days they would not initiate a military conflict.
“We will never be the first to shoot nor the first to blink,” Getachew Reda, a senior member of the TPLF, told the AFP news agency last week.
The International Crisis Group, citing “former Tigrayan officers”, said in a report last week that Tigray “comprises more than half of the armed forces’ total personnel and mechanised divisions”.
On Tuesday night, hours before Abiy’s announcement, Wondimu Asamnew, another senior Tigrayan official, told the AFP the federal government was amassing troops on the southern border of Tigray – a claim that could not be independently verified.
“I think when it comes to military mobilisation, it’s not child’s play. It can trigger all-out war … what they are doing is playing with fire,” Wondimu said.
“A small spark can ignite the whole region. So I think we are on the alert and I can assure you we are capable of defending ourselves.”