NAIROBI, Kenya. Ethiopian forces recaptured two strategic cities from insurgents, the government said late Monday in a string of victories that showed the government is re-establishing itself on the battlefield after months of major defeats in a year-long civil war.
Although the circumstances were unclear, the government appeared to have regained control of two cities, Dessie and Combolcha, which are critical to both the rebels and government forces, and reduced the territory controlled by the rebels.
The cities were prized by both sides because they are on a major highway that connects the landlocked country with the ports of neighboring Djibouti to the east, where most of Ethiopia’s exports and imports are carried out. They are also on an artery that connects with the highway south to the capital.
Recent claims of battlefield victories are tantamount to a turn of fate for the government. Just a month ago, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed declared a state of emergency, and he later went to the front himself to prevent ethnic Tigran rebels from attacking the capital, Addis Ababa.
“Nothing will stop us. The enemy will soon be completely annihilated, ”Mr. Abiy said Monday, addressing security forces involved in the recent fighting, state broadcaster Fana Broadcasting reported.
The claims of territorial takeover are the latest twist in a metastatic war that triggered a massive humanitarian crisis and led to reports of massacres, sexual assault and continued ethnic detention.
The government’s communications office reported on Facebook that a “coalition of our brave security forces” has taken over Dessie and Combalchu, which are about 250 miles northeast of the capital. These claims could not be independently verified due to the disconnection of communications in these areas, and it was not immediately clear how events unfolded on the battlefield.
But Getachew Reda, spokesman for the Tygrai People’s Liberation Front, said: admitted on Twitter that the rebels no longer control Dessie and Combalchu, stating that they left “as part of our plan.”
Rebels took over cities in late October, prompting Mr. Abiy to urge civilians to arm themselves and gather to defend the capital. Foreign embassies, alarmed by the insurgent advance, asked their citizens to leave the country immediately.
Mr Abiy also recently said the government has reclaimed the historic city of Lalibela, a UNESCO World Heritage Site known for its rock-cut churches that Tigrayan rebels took over in August.
Now in its fourteenth month, the Ethiopian civil war has claimed thousands of lives and forced more than two million people to flee their homes, with at least 400,000 people believed to be starving.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said last week that due to the ongoing conflict, at least 9.4 million people in northern Ethiopia are in need of food aid. This includes those who have recently been displaced from the western districts of the Tygraisky District. The UN reports that several thousand people, most of them women and children, have fled the area in recent weeks.
Strong calls for a ceasefire and efforts to initiate political dialogue by the United Nations and African and Western countries have so far yielded no results. And as the war intensified, the government called on civilians to join the army, and Olympic heroes such as long distance runners Haile Gebrselassie and Feyisa Liles expressed their support for the war effort.
The year-on-year conflict threatens to reverse Ethiopia’s hard-won economic gains over the past two decades. When Mr. Abiy came to power in 2018, he pledged to liberalize the economy and privatize state-owned companies to attract investors and support one of Africa’s fastest growing economies.
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However, according to experts, rising debt, rising inflation, a ban on duty-free access to the American market and a sharp increase in prices for basic foodstuffs will undermine Mr. Abiy’s ambitions.
Agriculture, the backbone of the economy, also suffered as farmers, especially in the northern Tigray region, were displaced internally or fled to Sudan. Authorities closed all high schools last week to students can help harvest support those on the front lines.
The ethnic tensions that fueled the war also spread to social media, with Facebook and Twitter being criticized for their handling of disinformation and inflammatory speech, including those of Mr. Abiy.
Following the declaration of a state of emergency last month, authorities also raided ethnic Tigers, including the elderly and mothers with children, and put them in overcrowded cells and warehouses where they did not have access to proper bedding and food.
The move was condemned by human rights groups, which said the authorities were detaining people without charge and without access to lawyers.
On Monday, six countries, including Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom, condemned the detentions, saying there was no “excuse for mass detention” of people from certain ethnic groups.
“Many of these actions are likely to constitute a violation of international law and should be stopped immediately,” the statement said. “We call on international observers for unimpeded and timely access.”