NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — Ethiopia’s upper house of parliament voted Saturday to set up an interim administration in the country’s Tigray region, where fighting this week between regional forces and those of the federal government led to fears that a major African power could slide into civil war.
The House of Federation’s decision paves the way for the removal of the northern Tigray region’s leadership, which Ethiopia’s federal government considers illegal. The decision needs no further approval, and it gives Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed the power to coordinate and carry out the measures.
Ethiopia’s federal government said “the transitional administration will appoint officials, ensure the respect for rule of law, approve the region’s budget and facilitate the process of conducting elections.”
In a new statement Saturday, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning prime minister asserted that “criminal elements cannot escape the rule of law under the guise of seeking reconciliation and a call for dialogue.” He said the federal government’s ongoing military operations aim to “end the impunity that has prevailed for far too long.”
Experts and diplomats have been watching in dismay as two heavily armed forces clash in one of the world’s most strategic yet vulnerable regions, the Horn of Africa. Observers warn that a civil war in Ethiopia, Africa’s second most populous country with 110 million people, could suck in or destabilize neighbors such as Sudan, Eritrea and Somalia.
A statement posted Saturday on the Facebook page of the Tigray government, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, said it will win the “justified” war that’s underway, and added that “a fighter will not negotiate with its enemies.”
“Tigray’s people are now armed with modern weaponry that could reach the seat of the infidels,” it added, an apparent reference to Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa. There was no reference to Saturday’s move by the federal government.
The conflict in Tigray is playing out between former allies in Ethiopia’s ruling coalition who now see each other as illegal.
The TPLF long dominated the country’s military and government before Abiy took office in 2018 and introduced sweeping political reforms that won him the Nobel. Those changes, however, left the TPLF feeling marginalized, and it broke away last year when Abiy sought to turn the coalition into a single Prosperity Party.
Tensions rose in recent weeks as the Tigray region, objecting to the delay of the national election until next year and Abiy’s extended stay in office, held a local election in September that the federal government called illegal.
The current fighting began early Wednesday when Abiy accused the TPLF forces of attacking a military base in Tigray. In a major escalation on Friday, Abiy announced that airstrikes in multiple locations around the Tigray capital “completely destroyed rockets and other heavy weapons” and made a retaliatory attack impossible.
The military operations will continue, the prime minister said, and he warned the Tigray population: ”In order to avoid unexpected peril, I advise that you limit group movements in cities.”
Communications remain almost completely severed with the Tigray region, making it difficult to verify either side’s assertions and leading to pleas from aid groups and human rights groups to restore internet and phone links.
They also warn of a brewing humanitarian disaster if the conflict continues, which experts warn is likely if the two sides reject talks.
Elias Meseret in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, contributed.