By Tom Kingsbury | Political Editor
Update: the Ethiopian government has now developed a humanitarian corridor to help provide aid for those in Tigray, though there are allegations that soldiers are blocking refugees from crossing the border with Sudan
In Tigray, a northern autonomous region within Ethiopia, a conflict with the federal government has escalated to an alarming degree for international organisations. Hundreds, possibly thousands, have already been killed, and many more displaced.
However, neither side seems willing to bring the conflict to a close, with the US ambassador noting “a strong commitment on both sides to see the military conflict through”.
The UN called it a “full-scale humanitarian crisis”, expressing concern that aid organisations are unable to get supplies into Tigray to help those affected by the conflict. It has called for a temporary ceasefire in order to establish humanitarian infrastructure in the region.
So far though, this has not been heeded, and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who in 2019 won the Nobel Peace Prize, has rejected calls for peace talks, saying the Tigray must surrender first.
What caused the conflict?
For many years, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) was the most powerful party of an Ethiopian coalition government.
Under the coalition, conditions in Ethiopia improved, but there were still questions about human rights, corruption, and a lack of democracy.
In 2018, Abiy became PM, bringing in wide-scale reforms. He merged the coalition into one party – the ‘Prosperity Party’. But the TPLF refused to join, and relations between the two organisations were tense.
Since then, they have only worsened, and in September Tigray held an election in defiance of the federal government’s postponement of any elections after an outbreak of coronavirus.
The Ethiopian government called the election “illegal”, and did not acknowledge it, but the TPLF accused Abiy of not holding an election for political reasons.
A conflict began to seem a genuine possibility, with both sides accusing the other of contemplating military force.
The spark that set the conflict ablaze came when a military base was taken in Tigray’s capital Mekelle. Abiy ordered military action in response, saying a “red line” had been crossed.
Soon after, he had called in airstrikes on targets within the region.
What impact has the conflict had?
Media presence in Tigray is low, and communications have been cut with the outside world to a significant extent. However, it is thought that hundreds, and likely thousands, have died so far.
Many people have been displaced too, with well over 30,000 having fled Tigray into neighbouring Sudan. If fighting continues, the UN refugee department has said up to 200,000 refugees are expected to arrive in Sudan.
The BBC talked to the head of Sudan’s refugee agency Alsir Khaled, who said:
“Whenever there are newcomers, the Sudanese are the first to go and help. Farmers and local citizens, the people share what they have”.
Ethiopia’s parliament has officially dissolved the Tigrayan government after an emergency session, and later, Ethiopia issued warrants for their arrests.
Ethiopian leadership has sacked its army chief, head of intelligence and foreign minister.
Amnesty international reported a massacre occurring in Tigray’s Mai-Kadra town on November 9, and said it believes hundreds were killed. Ethiopia’s human rights commission is investigating.
If verified, the UN said, it could amount to a war crime.
There are risks of the conflict spreading to other East African countries. Eritrea, north of Tigray, has clashed with the region before, and there have been some reports of Eritrean involvement in the conflict already.
The African Union (AU) called for an “immediate cessation of hostilities”, after Tigrayan President Debretsion Gebremichael called for their intervention. An envoy from the AU will visit Ethiopia, though it will not be permitted to visit Tigray and will only talk to Abiy.
The federal government has refused peace talks, and repeatedly called on Tigray to surrender.
Abiy has told people in the region’s capital, Mekelle, to “save themselves”, saying it will soon surround the city and fire artillery on it.
Disinformation in modern conflicts
In this and other recent conflicts, including that in Nagorno-Karabakh, there has been a rise in disinformation, with fake information and images being spread on social media.
In Ethiopia, there have been instances of images being manipulated or edited to represent blatantly false information.
There have been images falsely attributed to the conflict, when in fact they are not related, and footage used from other conflicts.
And tweets from officials have been translated wrongly in order to undermine them or otherwise spread misinformation.
It seems this could be a new facet of modern conflicts, with widespread use of social media all over the world making disinformation much easier.
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