ADDIS ABABA: Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has arrived at the front line where government forces are battling rebels from the northernmost Tigray region, state-affiliated media said on Wednesday.

International alarm has mounted over the escalating year-long conflict, prompting foreign governments to tell their citizens to leave amid fears the Tigrayan rebels could march on the capital Addis Ababa.

Abiy, winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, “is now leading the counter-offensive” and “has been giving leadership from the battlefield as of yesterday,” Fana Broadcasting Corporate reported.

Deputy Prime Minister Demeke Mekonnen is handling “regular activities”, the report said.

It was not clear where exactly Abiy, a former radio operator in the military who rose to lieutenant-colonel, had deployed, and state media did not broadcast images of him in the field. Officials have not responded to requests for details about his mission and whereabouts.

The fighting in the north of Africa’s second most populous country has killed thousands of people and forced hundreds of thousands into famine-like conditions, according to UN estimates. Foreign envoys have been frantically pushing for a ceasefire, though there have been few signs a breakthrough is coming.

Jeffrey Feltman, Washington’s special envoy for the Horn of Africa, said on Tuesday that “nascent progress” risked being “outpaced by the military escalation by the two sides”.

The war erupted in November 2020 when Abiy sent troops into Tigray to topple its ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).

He said the move was in response to TPLF attacks on federal army camps and promised a swift victory, but by late June the rebels had retaken most of Tigray including its capital Mekele.

Since then the TPLF has pushed into neighbouring Amhara and Afar regions, and this week it claimed to have seized a town just 220 kilometres from the capital.

Abiy’s announcement that he would deploy to the front “has inspired many to... join the survival campaign”, Fana said.

On Wednesday hundreds of new recruits took part in a ceremony held in their honour in the Kolfe district of Addis Ababa. As officials corralled sheep and oxen into trucks bound for the north, the recruits broke into patriotic songs and chants.

“I was amazed when I heard” Abiy planned to join soldiers in the field, one of the recruits, 42-year-old driver Tesfaye Sherefa, said.

“When a leader leaves his chair... and his throne it is to rescue his country. His focus is not to live, but to rescue this country, and I sobbed when he said follow me and went to the front line.” Among those saying they would fight is Feyisa Lilesa, a distance runner and Olympic silver medallist, who told state media the rebels’ advance presented “a great opportunity” to defend the country.

“When a country is violated, there is no way I will stand by and just watch,” Feyisa said.

The marathon runner gained political prominence by raising and crossing his arms as he finished the marathon at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro — a gesture of solidarity with fellow ethnic Oromos killed while protesting abuses committed during nearly three decades of TPLF rule.

Published in Dawn, November 25th, 2021

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