NAIROBI, Kenya — Ethiopia declared a state of emergency on Tuesday and called on its citizens to pick up arms and prepare to defend the capital as rebel forces from the northern region of Tigray pressed south toward the city following the capture of two key towns.
The Tigrayans, who have been fighting the government for the past year, have joined forces with another rebel group as they advance on the capital, Addis Ababa. Foreign officials monitoring the fighting said there were signs that several Ethiopian Army units had collapsed or retreated.
The state of emergency reflected the rapidly changing tide in a metastasizing war that threatens to tear apart Ethiopia, Africa’s second-most populous country.
It also marked another dismal turn in the fortunes of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, a Nobel Peace Prize winner whose international reputation has been battered by a war that has led to reports of human rights violations, massacres and famine.
One year ago, in the early hours of Nov. 4, Mr. Abiy launched a military campaign in the northern Tigray region, hoping to vanquish the regional ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front — his most troublesome political foe. But after promising a swift, even bloodless campaign, Mr. Abiy was quickly drawn into a military quagmire.
The Ethiopian military suffered a major defeat in June when it was forced to withdraw from Tigray, and several thousand of its soldiers were taken captive. Now the fighting is rapidly moving toward Mr. Abiy.
In recent days, Tigrayan rebels took the towns of Dessie and Kombolcha, just 160 miles to the northeast of the capital. A United Nations official said the Tigrayan forces were seen moving farther south from Kombolcha on Tuesday.
Under the state of emergency, Mr. Abiy has sweeping powers to arrest and detain critics, impose curfews and restrict the news media. Any citizen over 18 could be called into the fight, Justice Minister Gedion Timothewos told a news conference.
Hours earlier, the city administration in Addis Ababa had called on citizens to use their weapons to defend their neighborhoods. House-to-house searches were being conducted in search of Tigrayan sympathizers, it said in a statement.
The announcements added to a growing sense of trepidation in the city, where tensions have been building for days as news filtered in of Tigrayan military advances. A taxi driver named Dereje, who in the capital’s tense climate refused to give his second name, said he intended to join in the fight.
“I am not going to sit in my house and wait for the enemy,” he said. “I will fight for my kids and my country.”
But a teacher, who declined to give his name, said he had lost faith in the Ethiopian government. “They lied to us that T.P.L.F. have been defeated,” he said, referring to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. “I am terribly worried about what is going to happen. May God help us.”
President Biden, who has threatened to impose sanctions on Ethiopia unless it moves toward peace talks, said Tuesday he would revoke trade privileges for Ethiopia, including duty-free access to the United States because of “gross violations of internationally recognized human rights.”
Billene Seyoum, a spokeswoman for Mr. Abiy, did not respond to a request for comment.
Ethiopia’s Ministry of Trade and Regional Integration said in a statement that the decision to revoke trade privileges would reverse economic gains in Ethiopia “and unfairly impact and harm women and children.” Ethiopia is committed to bringing perpetrators of serious rights abuses to justice, it added.
The deteriorating situation in Ethiopia has sent alarm across the region, with fears that the fighting could spill into neighboring countries such as Kenya, or send waves of refugees across borders.
A darling of the West after he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019, Mr. Abiy has grown increasingly defensive in the past year as the war spilled out of Tigray, and once-close allies have subjected him to withering criticism.
That criticism has recently focused on Ethiopia’s punishing blockade of Tigray, which has prevented most supplies of food and medicine from reaching a region where the United Nations estimates that 5.2 million people urgently need help and 400,000 are living in famine-like conditions.
After the United States threatened Mr. Abiy’s government with sanctions in September, he accused the West of neocolonial bias and expelled seven senior U.N. officials, including a humanitarian aid coordinator in Tigray.
Last month, the Ethiopian military launched an offensive against Tigrayan forces that expanded to include airstrikes against the region’s besieged capital, Mekelle. In recent days, Mr. Abiy has blamed his losses on unidentified foreigners he says are fighting alongside the Tigrayans.
“Black and white nationals of non-Ethiopian descent have participated in the war,” he said.
In Addis Ababa, the security forces started a new roundup of ethnic Tigrayans, stoking fears of ethnically based reprisals in the capital as the rebels draw near.
International efforts to coax the sides to the negotiating table have come to nothing. Mr. Abiy has pushed ahead with military operations, despite mounting evidence that his army has come under crushing strain.
The Tigrayans, for their part, say they are fighting to break a siege that is strangling their region and starving their people.
Western pressure on Mr. Abiy has amounted to little more than “drips,” General Tsadkan Gebretensae, the rebels’ top strategist, told The New York Times last month. “We need more than drips.”
Human rights groups have also accused Tigrayan fighters of abuses, including the killing of Eritrean refugees, although not on the same scale as Ethiopian troops. The Ethiopian government accused Tigrayan fighters of killing “youth residents” in Kombolcha in recent days, but provided no evidence.
They have been pushing south, into Amhara region, since July, in a grinding battle that has unfolded largely out of sight as a result of internet blackouts and reporting restrictions.
The breakthrough came with the capture this weekend of Dessie and Kombolcha, strategically located towns on a highway running from north to south that has become the spine of a war that could determine the future of Ethiopia.
As they push south, the Tigrayans have linked up with the Oromo Liberation Army, a far smaller rebel group fighting for the rights of the Oromo, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group.
After years of battle in the bush, the O.L.A. appears to be moving into Ethiopia’s towns.
Odaa Tarbii, an O.L.A. spokesman, said Tuesday it had captured a town 120 miles north of Addis Ababa and expected to start moving south, alongside the Tigrayans, in two or three days.
For much of the war Mr. Abiy enjoyed staunch support from neighboring Eritrea, whose fighters entered Tigray in the conflict’s early weeks in late 2020, and were accused of many of the worst atrocities against civilians.
But in recent weeks, for reasons that are unclear, the Eritreans have been nowhere to be seen in the latest fighting, Tigrayan and Western officials said.
Getachew Reda, a spokesman for the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, said the Ethiopian military was falling into disarray as it retreated south, leaving behind bands of heavily armed ethnic militias.
“The command and control structure has collapsed,” he said, in an account that was broadly confirmed by two Western officials who could not be identified because of diplomatic sensitivities.