Rebel forces in Ethiopia's Tigray launch new offensive

Members of the Afar Special Forces

Members of the Afar Special Forces prepare their weapons next to a damaged house in the outskirts of the village of Bisober, Tigray Region, Ethiopia, on December 9, 2020.

Photo credit: Eduardo Soteras | AFP

What you need to know:

  • The Tigray Defence Forces (TDF) last month swept across large parts of Tigray and seized the regional capital Mekele after eight months of brutal conflict with federal troops.

Tigrayan forces claimed Tuesday to have launched a new offensive in the conflict-torn northern region of Ethiopia, two weeks after the federal government declared a unilateral ceasefire in the face of rebel advances.

A spokesman for the Tigrayan forces told AFP they had seized Alamata, the main town in southern Tigray, after launching the offensive on Monday.

Getachew Reda said fighting was also taking place in western Tigray.

The claims could not be independently confirmed because communications were largely down in the area, while an Ethiopian military spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Tigray Defence Forces (TDF) last month swept across large parts of Tigray and seized the regional capital Mekele after eight months of brutal conflict with federal troops.

The fighting -- marked by grisly massacres and widespread sexual violence -- has killed thousands of people, while the United Nations says hundreds of thousands are on the brink of famine.

Security forces and officials from the neighbouring Amhara region had moved in to both the southern and western areas of Tigray in November in support of the Ethiopian army, after Tigrayan forces cleared out during the early phase of the war.

"We promised to liberate every square inch of Tigray," Getachew said.

"Yesterday (Monday) we launched an offensive in (the southern region of) Raya and were able to absolutely rout federal defence forces and Amhara special forces divisions," he said.

"We have been able to secure most of southern Tigray including Korem and Alamata (the main town in the area)".

Getachew said TDF fighters were still "in hot pursuit" of pro-government fighters, adding: "We don't want to give them a chance to regroup."

More fighting reported

Korem is a town 170 kilometers (105 miles) south of Mekelle while Alamata is a major town 20km (12 miles) further south.

Several videos and photos shared on different platforms showed Tigrayan forces celebrating victory in Korem town in captured Amhara military vehicles.

After Korem, they quickly advanced to Alamata without any stiff resistance. A large unit of Amhara militia withdrew from the city located south of Korem.

The two cities were under control of Amhara special and militia forces.

Both sides have reportedly suffered significant casualties at the offensive TDF launched to regain both towns which had been under the government’s control shortly after the Tigray conflict erupted in November last year.

Some sources told that Korem was under heavy artillery bombardment by the Ethiopian National Defence Force and Amhara regional forces.

In Western Tigray, around Humera, the last city in the Tigray region south of the border with Eritrea and Sudan, TDF offensives have reportedly been slowed down as Amhara and Eritrean forces change strategies.

They have started to plant landmines in larger areas of Humera area in a bid to establish a buffer zone between them and TDF.

Civilians in Humera were reportedly evicted mainly to Eritrean territories before the landmines were planted.

The question now is whether the Tigrayan forces have the technical capability to cross these areas to further clean out pockets of resistance by Eritrean forces and Amhara militia in and around Humera.

Meanwhile, TDF has launched new offensives in Badme, a long-disputed border town which was the cause of a deadly border war between Ethiopia and Eritrea in 1998-2000.

Heavy fighting was reported between Tigrayan and Eritrean forces in the town of Badme but verification was difficult because of a communication blackout across the Tigray region.

Badme town was among the disputed territories which the UN backed Ethiopia-Eritrea Boundary Commission (EEBC) had given to the Red Sea nation.

A two-year long border conflict between Ethiopia and its former province, Eritrea, has claimed the lives of some 70,000 people.

Abiy's victory

The offensive was launched just two days after election results showed Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed had won a landslide in a June election that went ahead despite the Tigray conflict that has battered his global reputation.

The TDF had described its seizure of Mekele and most of Tigray as a major victory and branded the government's unilateral ceasefire a "joke."

Rebel leaders later said they accepted the ceasefire "in principle" but posed strict conditions including the withdrawal from the region of Eritrean and Amhara forces.

Abiy and other officials have countered that federal forces executed a strategic pullback to focus on other threats. 

The PM -- who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for his efforts of rapprochement with neighbouring Eritrea -- sent the army into Tigray last November to oust the region's once-dominant ruling party, the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF).

Abiy had accused them of orchestrating attacks on Ethiopian military bases in Tigray, an important economic and industrial region in the Horn of Africa nation.