Federal forces left the region to deal with threats ‘from outsiders’, says government spokesman.
Ethiopia says its military could re-enter the Tigray capital of Mekelle within weeks if needed, reiterating that a unilateral ceasefire declared by Addis Ababa earlier this week was intended to provide “humanitarian relief” in the restive region.
The comments on Wednesday by Redwan Hussein, spokesman for the Ethiopian government’s task force for Tigray, were the first by any official in Ethiopia’s federal government since Mekelle was seized by Tigrayan forces this week.
The retreat followed days of territorial gains by the Tigrayan forces battling Ethiopia’s government and its allies, including troops from neighbouring Eritrea and fighters from the Ethiopian region of Amhara, which borders Tigray to the south.
“Ethiopia is exposed to an attack from outsiders” because of the conflict, Redwan told reporters in an apparent reference to Sudan.
‘No more a threat’
Lieutenant-General Bacha Debele similarly told reporters the Ethiopian army left Mekelle to prepare for threats other than the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) rebels.
“The TPLF is no more a threat, but we’ve got (a) more national threat that we need to shift our attention to,” Bacha told reporters.
On Tuesday, TPLF spokesman Getachew Reda said the ceasefire declaration was a “joke”.
Getachew described the ceasefire as a political decision “made for humanitarian cause”.
“If it is required, we can easily enter to Mekelle and we can enter in less than three weeks,” he said.
The TPLF, an ethnically based political party that dominated Ethiopia’s national politics for nearly three decades, has been battling the central government since early November. It made major territorial gains in the past week.
The swift turn in the nearly eight-month war has left people scrambling to understand what exactly is going on in the region of six million people as communications links are largely down.
There will be no negotiations with Ethiopia until communications, transport and other services that have been cut or destroyed for much of the war are restored, Getachew told The Associated Press on Wednesday.
“We have to make sure that every inch of our territory is returned to us, the rightful owners,“ Getachew said, adding that Ethiopian forces are still fighting to regain territory and Eritrean forces still control a “significant part” of the region.
The Tigray spokesman also issued a warning to the long-time president of Eritrea, Isaias Afwerki, who has long been an enemy of Tigray’s leaders and sent soldiers into Tigray to support Ethiopian forces.
Witnesses have accused the Eritrean soldiers of some of the worst atrocities in the conflict. “We will do anything in our power to make sure that Isaias will never be a threat again,” Getachew said.
Officials for Eritrea, described by human rights groups as one of the world’s most repressive nations, have not responded to requests for comment.