Fighting in Ethiopia’s Tigray breaks out anew after five-month lull

Jewish Agency and Absorption Ministry say no changes to immigration drive planned in wake of renewal of hostilities between Addis Ababa and breakaway region

Ethiopian government soldiers ride in the back of a truck on a road near Agula, north of Mekele, in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia on May 8, 2021. (Ben Curtis/AP)
Illustrative: Ethiopian government soldiers ride in the back of a truck on a road near Agula, north of Mekele, in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia on May 8, 2021. (Ben Curtis/AP)

NAIROBI, Kenya — Fighting erupted between government forces and Tigrayan rebels in northern Ethiopia on Wednesday, shattering a five-month truce and dealing a blow to peace efforts.

Reports of fresh offensives were followed by Ethiopia’s air force announcing it had downed a plane carrying weapons for the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).

The government of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the rebels have accused each other of undermining efforts to peacefully resolve the brutal 21-month war in Africa’s second most populous nation, and traded blame over who was responsible for returning to combat.

The renewed conflict is a significant setback to mediation efforts and the work to reach millions of people starved of food and other needs.

UN chief Antonio Guterres said he was “deeply shocked” by the renewed fighting and appealed for an “immediate cessation of hostilities and for the resumption of peace talks.”

The head of the African Union Commission voiced “deep concern” and called for a “de-escalation.”

Moussa Faki Mahamat “strongly calls for the immediate cessation of hostilities and urges the parties to resume talks to seek a peaceful solution,” an AU statement said

In Israel, which last year stepped up efforts to bring thousands of Ethiopian Jews from the war zone amid concerns for their safety, officials indicated that the fighting would not affect the pace of immigration.

The Jewish Agency, which largely oversees the immigration from Ethiopia, said its work is ongoing but that any change would require a government decision.

“Unlike other countries, aliyah from Ethiopia is determined by the government, not the Jewish Agency for Israel,” a spokeswoman said, using the Hebrew term for Jewish immigration to Israel.

Immigration and Absorption Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata handing out gifts aboard an aliyah flight from Ethiopia on June 1, 2022. (Amy Spiro/The Times of Israel)

Following years of delays, Israel approved the immigration of some 3,000 Ethiopian nationals who were eligible for Israeli citizenship late last year. Initial flights began in June, but thousands remain in Ethiopia, waiting to come to Israel.

The Immigration Ministry said there is no immediate change to the rate of immigration and that the fighting is still largely contained to northern Ethiopia, far from the camps in Addis Ababa where the prospective immigrants are staying.

“Hopefully, when a new government is formed we will pass a government resolution to bring over all of those eligible for immigration and to finally shut the waiting camps,” a spokesperson for Immigration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata said. The minister is herself an immigrant from Ethiopia, arriving in Israel as a child with her family.

The Tigray conflict began in November 2020, killing thousands of people in Africa’s second-most populous country, and it calmed in recent months amid slow-moving mediation efforts. But last week, the spokeswoman for Ahmed asserted to journalists that Tigray authorities were “refusing to accept peace talks.”

Ethiopia’s military this week warned the public against any reporting of troop movements. Journalists haven’t been allowed into Tigray for more than a year.

An August 23 letter signed by Tigray leader Debretsion Gebremichael and shared with The Associated Press says Tigray leaders had “conducted two rounds of confidential face-to-face talks with senior military and civilian officials,” the first confirmation of direct talks. But the letter says “unacceptable conditions have been inserted into the peace process,” and it urges the international community to step in quickly.

The Tigray military command’s statement Wednesday said Ethiopian forces, along with Amhara special forces and Amhara militias, “have started a large-scale attack around 5:00 a.m. in the direction of Alamata, southern Tigray.” Tigray forces spokesman Getachew Reda tweeted that the offensive followed a “week-long provocation” by forces in the neighboring Amhara region.

Ethiopian military spokesman Getnet Adane didn’t respond to questions. The government’s communication service in a statement asserted that the Tigray forces launched attacks Wednesday morning. It said if attacks continue, “the government will take measures to save the country… and also bring [Tigray forces] to the negotiating table whether it likes it or not.”

An Ethiopian woman argues with others over the allocation of yellow split peas after it was distributed by the Relief Society of Tigray in the town of Agula, in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia on May 8, 2021. Ben Curtis/AP)

Last week, Tigray forces warned of an impending offensive. In a Facebook post Tuesday, Ethiopia’s army rejected allegations of a military buildup and claimed the Tigray forces were “engaged in pre-conflict noise.” The post also warned against spreading “secrets of the army.”

Ethiopia’s government has said it’s ready for talks, but insists the African Union must lead mediation efforts. Tigray authorities have criticized the continental body’s efforts and urgently sought the resumption of telephone, banking and other services that have been largely cut off since the war began.

Earlier this month, World Health Organization director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, an ethnic Tigrayan, described the crisis in Tigray as “the worst disaster on Earth” and wondered aloud if the reason global leaders have not responded was due to “the color of the skin of the people in Tigray.”

Humanitarian aid began flowing to Tigray earlier this year, but a report by the World Food Program last week said that with little fuel allowed into the region to deliver supplies, “this is yet to translate into increased humanitarian assistance.” The UN agency said “rates of malnutrition have skyrocketed,” with 29% of children malnourished and 2.4 million people severely food insecure.

The conflict also has created a humanitarian crisis for millions of people affected by the fighting in the Amhara and neighboring Afar regions, while thousands of Tigrayans now live in refugee camps in Sudan.

The head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus speaks during a media conference at an EU Africa summit in Brussels on February 18, 2022. (Johanna Geron/Pool Photo via AP)

The new fighting comes as the president of neighboring Kenya, who has tried to mediate with US support, to Ethiopia’s annoyance, prepares to leave office.

“This is one of the most important and brutal conflicts on Earth,” US Sen. Chris Coons, a member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, told journalists Wednesday after completing a five-country Africa visit during which he discussed Ethiopia with the presidents of Kenya and Rwanda.

“I actually had left Africa two days ago somewhat optimistic about the path forward for mediation, so [the renewed fighting] is very disheartening to hear,” he said.

Coons visited Ethiopia last year as an envoy of US President Joe Biden. “I have been very disappointed that Prime Minister Abiy has not made more progress in meeting the commitments he made, and deeply frustrated that the improvements in terms of humanitarian access and [reductions in] some of the press and information limitations have moved as slowly as they have,” Coons said.

The renewed fighting is a “deafening warning to the key international and regional actors that they must immediately ensure peace talks actually occur,” said analyst William Davison of the International Crisis Group. “They should accordingly instruct the belligerents to issue all of their demands when at the negotiating table, rather than making them preconditions for talks.”

New immigrants from Ethiopia land at Ben Gurion Airport on June 1, 2022. (Maxim Dinshtein)

There are thought to be 7,000 to 12,000 Ethiopian community members still waiting to come to Israel, many of whom live in the Tigray region, at the heart of the conflict.

In November, as fighting in Tigray raged, Israel’s immigration minister Tamano-Shata and Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked agreed to accelerate the stalled immigration of 3,000 Ethiopians claiming Jewish descent. Those included in the agreement have first-degree relatives in Israel and were eligible to immigrate under a 2015 government decision, under which 9,000 people would be brought to the Jewish state. The government later okayed the plan.

Since fighting broke out a year and a half ago, over 2,000 Ethiopian Jews have been brought to Israel in state-run operations, among them a group of 61 who needed ministers to sign off on their immigration because they are not part of the Jewish community, claiming only Jewish roots.

In June, over 300 Ethiopian immigrants arrived in Israel and the Jewish Agency said at the time that nearly 3,000 more are scheduled to arrive by November.

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