The government “has been forced to take rule of law enforcement measures to effectively respond to the unceasing belligerence perpetrated by the TPLF clique in violation” of the constitution, Abiy said in a statement that launched a six-month state of emergency approved earlier this week.
Abiy said a state of emergency task force, led by the chief of staff of the armed forces, had been established with the authority to disarm security forces in Tigray, impose a curfew and restrictions on movement, and detain anyone suspected of taking part in illegal activities “that endanger the constitutional order.”
The development further escalated hostilities, including clashes in parts of Tigray in recent days between the federal government and the TPLF, which ruled the country as part of a coalition until 2018, when Abiy took power.
Fighting between the sides erupted Wednesday after Abiy accused the region’s rulers of attacking government military bases and attempting to steal artillery and military equipment.
The conflict drew an urgent international response as concerns mounted over its impact on the Horn of Africa if fighting spread beyond Ethiopia’s borders. Sudan on Friday closed its border with Ethiopia.
Despite attempts by the United Nations and African Union to mediate in the conflict, there was little evidence that Abiy, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, was willing to step back from a full-scale confrontation and launch talks with the TPLF.
On Thursday, Birhanu Jula, deputy chief of the Ethiopian National Defense Force, said more government troops were being moved into the area, and he declared that Ethiopia had entered an “unexpected war” in Tigray.
U.N. Secretary General António Guterres expressed alarm Friday at the growing conflict and joined others in calling for a de-escalation in tensions.
“The stability of Ethiopia is important for the entire Horn of Africa region,” Guterres said Friday on Twitter. “I call for an immediate de-escalation of tensions and a peaceful resolution to the dispute.”
An international humanitarian official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of safety issues, said the regional capital Mekele was calm Friday. Reuters, quoting a humanitarian worker in Tigray, said sporadic sounds of shelling near the Tigray-Amhara border were heard in the early hours of Friday.
Tensions have been growing for months between the federal government and Tigray, which held local elections in September despite a freeze on all polls because of the coronavirus pandemic. Earlier this month, lawmakers suspended funding to the region’s government.
William Davison, an expert on Ethiopia for the International Crisis Group, said Abiy’s ultimate goal was to remove the TPLF’s leadership but acknowledged it would probably be difficult to do.
“The federal government’s intention is to remove the TPLF leadership from power in Tigray,” he said. Forcing the TPLF leadership to step down or to capture them would probably face strong resistance from the region’s large paramilitary force and local militia, Davison said.
With tensions between Abiy’s government and Tigray growing in recent months, the International Crisis Group said the federal army had for weeks built up forces on Tigray’s southern flanks, while Eritrean forces were assembling on the border with Tigray’s north.
Davison said toppling the region’s leadership would require a “very forceful military intervention and one which is likely to be obviously resisted by Tigray . . . and therefore we’re likely to see quite serious damage to be incurred.”
Debretsion Gebremichael, president of the Tigray region, told reporters Thursday, “We are in position to defend ourselves from enemies that waged war on the Tigray region.”
The country is already home to the second-largest refugee population in Africa, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency.
“If the conflict intensifies, we can expect new displacement of potentially large numbers of people,” Norwegian Refugee Council Regional Director Nigel Tricks said. “All flight access, including for humanitarian agencies, have been constrained in the region, which could ultimately impact our ability to provide humanitarian assistance.”
Wroughton reported from Cape Town.