ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia – Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed praised his soldiers on Monday for defeating a rebellious northern movement, but the leader of the Tigray forces said they were still fighting amid fears of a protracted guerrilla conflict.
The nearly month-long war killed hundreds and probably thousands, sent refugees to Sudan, entangled Eritrea, influenced a peacekeeping mission in Somalia and deepened divisions among the myriad ethnic groups in Ethiopia.
Abiy’s troops took Tigray’s capital, Mekelle, over the weekend, declaring defeat for the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, a guerrilla movement turned political party that dominated the national government for almost three decades until 2018.
“Our constitution was attacked, but it took us three weeks, not three years,” Abiy told Parliament, comparing his offensive to the American Civil War of the 1860s.
“No other country can guarantee such an achievement. Our army is disciplined and victorious,” he added. The federal troops had not killed civilians or damaged Mekelle after the start of an offensive on November 4 in response to a TPLF attack on a military base.
“We are not the (TPLF) junta … We behave responsibly.”
Although the highland city of 500,000 people fell with little resistance, the TPLF later said it shot down a plane and retook a city.
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TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael, a 57-year-old former radio operator, denied reports he fled to South Sudan, saying his forces captured some soldiers from neighboring Eritrea around Wukro, about 30 miles north of Mekelle.
“I’m close to Mekelle in Tigray and I’m fighting the invaders,” Debretsion Gebremichael told Reuters in a text message.
Claims from all sides are difficult to verify as telephone and Internet connections to Tigray have largely been cut and access has been tightly controlled since the war began.
There was no comment from the Asmara government, although they refused to participate at the beginning of the war.
The TPLF shot at Asmara Airport.
When Abiy took office in 2018, he promised to unite Ethiopia’s 115 million people, but there were repeated attacks of ethnic bloodshed and hundreds of thousands had to flee their homes.
Both sides have spoken of hundreds of dead in the Tigray War, and diplomats believe the toll is in the thousands.
Abiy’s spokeswoman Billene Seyoum dismissed the TPLF’s comments on the resistance, saying, “Pursuing and responding to the many delusions of a disintegrating criminal clique that has become irrelevant is not our focus.”
But Debretsion’s defiance raises the specter of protracted guerrilla warfare. The battle-hardened TPLF helped overthrow the Marxist dictatorship of Ethiopia in 1991 and knows how to take advantage of the mountainous terrain and borders with Sudan and Eritrea.
“Although it is not clear how exhausted the Tigrayan security forces are from the conflict, armed resistance to federal rule can be supported by much of the regional government and the party apparatus, including the local militia, as well as other Tigrayan nationalist elements,” International said Will Davison, analyst for the Crisis Group.
Abiy won a Nobel Peace Prize last year for peace with Eritrea, whose government also regards the TPLF as an enemy.
The US State Department reported six explosions in Asmara on Saturday evening, without specifying the cause. Diplomats told Reuters they were either missiles or missiles.
Ethiopia makes an important contribution to an African Union peacekeeping force that is fighting against Al Qaeda-affiliated militants in Somalia, but has disarmed several hundred Tigrayan soldiers there and questioned their loyalty.