Ethiopia PM claims war gains, urges rebels to 'surrender'

Ethiopia PM claims war gains, urges rebels to 'surrender'

Abiy, a former lieutenant-colonel in the military, announced last week that he would head to the battlefield
Abiy, a former lieutenant-colonel in the military, announced last week that he would head to the battlefield

ADDIS ABABA - Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed on Tuesday urged Tigrayan rebels to surrender, claiming government forces were nearing victory just one week after he vowed to lead military operations at the front.

His upbeat portrayal of the military's fortunes came as fighting reportedly raged on at least three fronts, one of which -- the town of Debre Sina -- is located less than 200 kilometres (120 miles) by road from the capital Addis Ababa.

"The youth of Tigray is perishing like leaves. Knowing it is defeated, it is being led by one who does not have a clear vision or plan," Abiy, winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, said in comments aired on state media.

"It should surrender today to the Ethiopian National Defence Force, to the special forces, to the militias and to the people."

Tuesday's footage was the latest in a series of clips showing Abiy, in uniform with soldiers, in what appeared to be the northeastern region of Afar.

The area has been the site of fierce fighting in recent weeks as the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) rebel group has tried to seize control of a critical highway that supplies the capital.

On Sunday, state media claimed the army controlled the lowland Afar town of Chifra, and Abiy said Tuesday such gains would be replicated to the west, in Amhara region.

"The enemy has been defeated. We scored an unthinkable victory with the eastern command in one day... Now in the west we will repeat this victory," he said.

The announcement last week that Abiy, a former lieutenant-colonel in the military, would head to the battlefield came after the TPLF claimed to control Shewa Robit, a town 220 km northeast of Addis Ababa by road.

The move "has inevitably boosted troop morale and emboldened the people of Ethiopia to unite, and to resist and to push back the threat of the terrorist organisation," Abiy's spokeswoman Billene Seyoum told a press conference Tuesday, referring to the TPLF.

"In the past few days alone, great strides have been made in forcing the TPLF to relinquish their occupation of key areas."

But a TPLF spokesman on Monday dismissed Abiy's deployment as a "circus" involving "farcical war games."

- Foreigners depart -

Fears of a rebel march on Addis Ababa have prompted the United States, France, Britain and other countries to urge their citizens to leave Ethiopia as soon as possible, though Abiy's government says TPLF gains are overstated and the city is secure.

War broke out between the two sides in November 2020, with Abiy sending troops into the northernmost Tigray region to topple the TPLF -- a move he said came in response to TPLF attacks on army camps.

The fighting has killed thousands, displaced more than two million and driven hundreds of thousands into famine-like conditions, according to UN estimates.

Olusegun Obasanjo, the African Union's special envoy for the Horn of Africa, is leading a push to broker a ceasefire, though there has been little evident progress so far.

Diplomats following the process have said Abiy's deployment possibly signalled a lack of interest in peace talks, though Billene pushed back on that notion at Tuesday's press conference.

"His decision to join the army in the battlefield does not mean a change on the government's principled position of a peaceful solution to this conflict," she said.

However the two sides remain far apart on possible conditions for talks.

Federal officials have previously said that the rebels must pull out of Amhara and Afar before a "peaceful solution" could be found, something the TPLF has dismissed as a nonstarter.

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