Ethiopia's PM relishes victory, but Tigrayan leader says war not over

EDUARDO SOTERAS / AFP

Ethiopian leader Abiy Ahmed praised soldiers for securing victory over a rebellious northern movement, but the leader of Tigray's forces said they were still fighting amid fears of a protracted guerrilla conflict.

The nearly month-long war has killed hundreds and probably thousands, sent refugees into Sudan, enmeshed Eritrea, affected a peacekeeping mission in Somalia, and deepened divisions between Ethiopia's myriad ethnic groups.

Abiy's troops took Tigray's capital Mekelle at the weekend and declared defeat for the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), a guerrilla movement-turned-political party that dominated national government for nearly three decades until 2018.

"Our constitution was attacked but it didn't take us three years, it took us three weeks," Abiy told parliament, comparing his offensive with the American Civil War of the 1860s.

"No other country can ensure such a performance. Our army is disciplined and victorious," he added, saying federal troops had not killed any civilians nor damaged Mekelle after launching a November 4 offensive in response to a TPLF attack on an army base.

"We are not the (TPLF) junta ... We conduct ourselves responsibly."

Though the highland city of 500,000 people fell with little resistance, the TPLF later said it had shot down a plane and retaken one town.

TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael, a 57-year-old former radio operator, denied reports that he had fled to South Sudan and said his forces had captured some soldiers from neighbouring Eritrea around Wukro, about 50 km north of Mekelle.

"I'm close to Mekelle in Tigray fighting the invaders," Debretsion told Reuters in a text message.

Claims from all sides are difficult to verify since phone and internet links to Tigray have largely been down and access has been tightly controlled since the war began.

There was no comment from the Asmara government, though at the start of the war it denied involvement.

The TPLF has shelled Asmara airport.

When he took office in 2018, Abiy pledged to unite Ethiopia's 115 million people, but there have been repeated bouts of ethnic bloodshed and hundreds of thousands have had to flee their homes.

Both sides have spoken of hundreds of dead in the Tigray war, and diplomats believe the toll is in the thousands.

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