The Ethiopian army blocked the advance of the rebels

The Ethiopian army blocked the advance of the rebels
The Ethiopian army blocked the advance of the rebels

On Wednesday, the government of Ethiopia, led by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, announced that it had regained control of the city of Lalibela, which had been captured in early August by separatists from the Tigray Liberation Front (TPLF). The city is above all known for the presence of 11 rock churches part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site and – until the beginning of the civil war one year ago – was a tourist and Christian-Orthodox pilgrimage destination.

The reconquest, made possible by the contribution of local militiamen, is an important victory for Abiy, but the TPLF representatives attributed it to their “strategic retreat” to reorganize their forces.

After losing control of several other cities, to the point that even the capital Addis Ababa was in danger of being threatened, the Ethiopian government had launched a new series of offensives against separatists since the beginning of November. In recent days, Abiy himself had presented himself at the front to thank the army and give his support to the soldiers.

Ethiopian state television on Wednesday aired images of the prime minister dressed in camouflage with soldiers, to whom he said: “The enemy is defeated. The task we have left is to bring it to defeat and destroy it ».

In reality, the situation in Ethiopia continues to be very complicated: the conflict could last for a long time and have implications for part of the Horn of Africa.

Until about a year ago, the country was considered among the most stable in the area: in 2019 Abiy had received the Nobel Peace Prize for the peacemaking work carried out with neighboring Eritrea, with which Ethiopia was formally at war since the late nineties. Abiy had received international praise, including for the long-awaited democratic reforms initiated in the country.

As part of internal pacification activities, a year ago the federal army launched a military operation in Tigrè, a northern region with strong independence forces whose government has been controlled for years by the TPLF. The Front had also been a dominant force in the federal government (despite the Tigrinians being an ethnic minority), but had then lost its ability to influence after Abiy’s arrival in 2018.

At the end of last year, the federal government hoped to regain control of the Tigrè with rapid military action, but things had gone differently with long and violent fighting, demonstrating the military capabilities acquired by the separatists in recent years. There had been reports of serious war crimes and crimes against humanity carried out by both sides.

Later, the government effectively isolated Tigray, with an embargo that continues today and prevents hundreds of thousands of people from accessing basic necessities. It is estimated that in addition to the thousands of people killed, more than 2.5 million inhabitants have had to leave their homes.

In a year of war, the Tigray separatists were also able to rely on an important alliance with the Oromo Liberation Army, which fights for the rights of the Oromo, the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia. The agreement between the two parties had surprised some observers, considering that Abiy himself is of Oromo origin.

In this context, at the beginning of August this year the TPLF had conquered Lalibela, without any particular fighting and with thousands of inhabitants who had abandoned the city. The conquest was part of the new offensive organized starting from the summer, which had led the separatists to regain control of Macallè, the regional capital of Tigrè, and then to go south, with the aim of taking control of sections gradually. more significant than the “A2” motorway, which leads to the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa.

At the beginning of November, the separatists with their allies had taken control of Dessie and Combolcià, two other important cities along the highway, raising new fears from the federal government about a further approach to the capital. Abiy had responded by declaring a state of emergency, inviting the citizens to be ready to defend Addis Ababa.

In addition to announcing the recapture of Lalibela, the Ethiopian government said it was optimistic about the possibility of regaining control of Dessie “within a short time”, but did not provide further details.

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