Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered the military to deploy to the Tigray region on Wednesday after accusing the government there of attacking federal troops, a major escalation of a row between the premier and the once-powerful region.
In September, Tigray held regional elections in defiance of the federal government, which called the vote “illegal”. The row has escalated in recent days with both sides accusing each other of plotting a military conflict.
Early on Wednesday, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) attempted to steal artillery and other equipment from federal forces stationed there, Abiy’s office said in a statement.
“The last red line has been crossed with this morning’s attacks and the federal government is therefore forced into a military confrontation,” Abiy’s office said in a statement.
The Ethiopian National Defense Forces have been ordered to carry out “their mission to save the country and the region from spiraling into instability”, the statement said.
Tigray banned flights from its airspace after the statement by Abiy, the local government said in a statement broadcast on television.
The region also said that the Northern Command of the federal military, which is stationed in the region, had defected to its side. There was no immediate comment from the federal military on the claim.
Debretsion Gebremichael, the president of the Tigray region, told a news conference on Monday that Abiy’s government was planning to attack the region to punish it for holding the September election.
The developments in Ethiopia could have grave consequences for the region, warned Asnake Kefale, an associate professor of political science at the University of Addis Ababa.
“This conflict could destabilise the wider region if the Ethiopian army can’t get the violence across the country under control,” Asnake said.
Tigrayans ruled Ethiopian politics since guerrilla fighters ousted a Marxist dictator in 1991, but their influence has waned under Abiy and last year, the TPLF quit his ruling coalition.
Tigray’s population makes up 5% of Ethiopia’s 109 million people, but its history in politics means it is wealthier and more influential than many other, larger regions.
The Tigray regional army is a well-trained, disciplined force dating back to the 1980s when it led the guerrilla movement that brought the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front coalition to power, analysts say.
Writing by Duncan Miriri; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan