Several towns were reportedly seized by the TPLF in recent days, including Almata, Wag, Waja, and Addi Arkay, following shelling by the TPLF, and the Afar town of Abala was also shelled, according to local media reports.
According to the Awassa Guardian, “dozens of civilians” have been killed in the shelling.
Several of the towns are hotly disputed between Tigray and Amhara, having been historically part of the Amhara region but were annexed into Tigray state after the TPLF seized power in 1991, when the state was almost doubled in size. More recently, the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) occupied those towns, including Almata and Waja, during its drive to push the TPLF out of Amhara and Afar last month.
The TPLF sally is its first since Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government declared the end of combat operations on December 23. Six months earlier, the TPLF had launched an invasion of Amhara and Afar and begun an all-out drive on the capital of Addis Ababa, far to the south. Only an all-out effort by the ENDF, including Abiy going to the front to direct military operations, managed to blunt the assault, and in mid-December the TPLF’s pocket of territory outside Tigray collapsed.
National Dialogue Begins
When combat operations were declared over last month, a National Dialogue Commission was formed “to bridge differences and chart an inclusive way forward for national understanding and alignment,” according to Abiy’s office, which was careful to distinguish between a national dialogue and negotiations with the TPLF, which was categorized as a terrorist organization by the Ethiopian parliament last May.
Abiy’s government has also attempted to ease tensions in the country by giving amnesty to some jailed opposition figures, including senior leaders of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) and Balderals for Genuine Democracy.
"If there is a dialogue, of course we will be part of [it],'' said Balderals for Genuine Democracy founder Eskinder Nega, one of those freed on Orthodox Christmas. “The country needs a national dialogue. Whether this will bear fruit, or whether this would be a trustworthy process, is another question."
"The most important issue that we face as a nation today now is this war that’s being waged against our unity by the TPLF. Since they have lost power, now their interest is not only to change the government, to come back to power, to break up the country, and we need to stop that, we need to preserve our nation,” Eskinder added. The TPLF ruled Ethiopia for 27 years before Abiy was elected in 2018.
Despite maintaining a public position of neutrality and a desire for peace throughout the conflict, US and European diplomats secretly expressed their approval for the TPLF offensive in meetings reported on by Sputnik. Later, the New York Times made clear that Abiy’s government had fallen out of its once-favored position with Washington after making peace with Eritrea, a country designated as a pariah state by Washington for its refusal to cooperate with US foreign policy goals in the region.
Speaking to reporters ahead of a January 10 phone call between Abiy and US President Joe Biden, a “senior administration official” described Eritrea, which is allied with Abiy against the TPLF, as playing an “unhelpful role” in the conflict.
“We do not believe that they have a constructive role to be played in a conflict that is taking place on the other side of their border,” the official added. Eritrea joined the conflict in November 2020, just days after the TPLF launched a surprise attack on ENDF forces stationed in Tigray. When Ethiopian forces retreated from Tigray into Eritrea and were given supplies and shelter, the TPLF fired ballistic missiles at the Eritrean capital of Asmara.
“President Biden expressed concern that the ongoing hostilities, including recent air strikes, continue to cause civilian casualties and suffering, and he reaffirmed the US commitment to work alongside the African Union and regional partners to help Ethiopians peacefully resolve the conflict,” the White House said in a readout of the call.
“Both leaders underscored the importance of the US-Ethiopia relationship, the potential to strengthen cooperation on a range of issues, and the need for concrete progress to resolve the conflict,” it added.
Unsolved Humanitarian Crisis Amid Stalemate
Despite the end of formal combat operations, ENDF drone strikes have reportedly continued inside Tigray, where the TPLF continues to refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of Abiy’s government and insist on being treated on equal terms with the Ethiopian government, as if Tigray were a sovereign and independent country instead of a rebellious province.
Over the weekend, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said it was suspending operations in Tigray in response to several airstrikes that reportedly hit refugee centers and killed civilians. However, Agence France-Presse noted the near-impossibility of independently verifying the claims, which have relied on TPLF media organs.
Widespread condemnation for the alleged ENDF strikes followed, including by the United States and United Nations. However, no parallel outcry has accompanied the TPLF’s shelling or seizure of Afar and Amhara towns, where numerous civilian casualties have also been reported.
A similar situation has happened in neighboring Yemen, where the same international bodies express their disgust at attacks launched on Saudi targets by the Houthis, but they do not condemn Saudi airstrikes on targets in Yemen, even when Saudi media admits they cause large numbers of casualties.