Ethiopian Forces Retreat in Tigray, and Rebels Enter the Capital
After months of civil war and government occupation, Tigrayan rebels have pushed a counterattack that quickly brought them to Mekelle’s doorstep. Times journalists are there.
MEKELLE, Ethiopia (The New York Times) — In a major turn in Ethiopia’s eight-month civil war in the northern Tigray region, Tigrayan fighters began entering the regional capital Monday night after Ethiopian government troops retreated from the city.
The Ethiopian military has occupied the Tigray region since last November, after invading in cooperation with Eritrean and militia forces to wrest control from the regional government. The Tigrayan fighters, known as the Tigray Defense Forces, spent months regrouping and recruiting new troops, and then in the past week began a rolling counterattack back toward the capital, Mekelle.
New York Times journalists in Mekelle saw thousands of residents take to the streets on Monday night, waving flags and shooting off fireworks after hearing that Tigrayan forces had advanced to the city.
The Tigrayans’ rapid advance was a significant setback for the government of Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, who had declared when he sent his forces into the restive Tigray region last year that the operation would be over in a matter of weeks.
Sisay Hagos, a 36-year-old who was celebrating in Mekelle on Monday, said: “They invaded us. Abiy is a liar and a dictator, but he is defeated already. Tigray will be an independent country!”
Refugees and international observers have accused the invading forces of wide-ranging atrocities, including ethnic cleansing, and of pushing the region to the brink of famine.
But from the outset, the party in control of Tigray’s regional government, known as the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, or T.P.L.F., which for many years was the ruling party in Ethiopia, has vowed to resist.
Soldiers belonging to the Ethiopian National Defense Forces were seen leaving Mekelle in vehicles throughout the day on Monday, some of them with looted materials, according to international officials and aid workers. Soldiers also entered the compound of Unicef and the World Food Program, and disconnected the internet, they said. Shops in the city closed early.
Politicians with the interim government that had been installed in Tigray by Ethiopia’s central government have also retreated from Mekelle, and some were already back in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, the international officials said.
The recent shifts in Mekelle followed more than a week of escalating violence and troop movements in the Tigray region. Heavy weapons were part of the fighting on both sides, and key towns reportedly changed hands among Ethiopian, Eritrean and Tigrayan forces, U.N. security documents show.
The Tigray Defense Forces have in recent weeks captured areas south of Mekelle that had been held by Ethiopian forces or militias allied with them.
Ethiopian forces reportedly abandoned a number of strategic positions around Adigrat, Abiy Adiy and in several locations in southern Tigray. The rebels also say they have captured several thousand Ethiopian soldiers and are holding them as prisoners of war.
Getachew Reda, an executive member of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, said in a telephone interview last week that Tigrayan forces — which have mushroomed with thousands of new volunteers — have gone on the offensive, targeting four Ethiopian army divisions.
“We have launched an offensive at the divisions which we believed were critical,” Mr. Getachew said. “At the same time they have abandoned many towns and cities.”
Declan Walsh reported from Mekelle, Ethiopia, and Simon Marks from Brussels, Belgium. Declan Walsh is the Chief Africa correspondent. He was previously based in Egypt, covering the Middle East, and in Pakistan. He previously worked at the Guardian and is the author of The Nine Lives of Pakistan.