Ethiopia’s Prime Minister announced major changes to his government’s military and intelligence leadership on Sunday as he sought to defend a growing military action against the country’s defiant Tigray region, and urged citizens not to target the ethnic Tigrayan people amid fears of civil war.
The United Nations warns of a major humanitarian crisis if up to 9 million people flee all-out fighting or the Tigray region remains largely cut off from the world.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s cabinet reshuffle included little explanation but appeared aimed at bringing the most outspoken supporters of the operation in Tigray to the forefront.
The former deputy of the armed forces, Gen. Birhanu Jula, becomes army chief.
Foreign Minister Gedu Andargachew was reassigned as security advisor to Abiy, with Deputy Prime Minister Demeke Mekonnen replacing him.
Demelash Gebremichael was removed as head of intelligence and will lead the Federal Police Commission, while former Amhara regional leader Temesgen Tiruneh steps into the role.
Birhanu told the state-owned Addis Zemen newspaper that several locations in Tigray including Dansha, Barken and areas from Shiraro to Shire are now under the federal army’s control after the military operation began Wednesday.
“The army has destroyed all the heavy weapons controlled by the infidel group. Now it is marching forward,” he said.
A fighter jet sent to strike locations around the regional capital, Mekele, was shot down Sunday, senior TPLF official Getachew Reda told the region’s state-affiliated Tigray Mass Media Agency.
Communications remain almost completely cut off in Tigray, with airports and roads closed, complicating efforts to verify either side’s assertions. Each accuses the other of starting the fighting.
The conflict in Tigray pits two heavily armed forces against each other in the heart of the strategic but vulnerable Horn of Africa region, and experts worry that neighbors including Sudan, Eritrea and Somalia could be sucked in.
The federal and Tigray governments, once allies in Ethiopia’s ruling coalition, now regard each other as illegal, the result of Abiy’s political reforms after taking office in 2018 that left the once-dominant TPLF feeling marginalized and targeted.
Diplomats and others assert that the conflict in Tigray could destabilize other parts of Ethiopia, Africa’s second-most populous country with 110 million people, scores of ethnic groups and other regions that have sought more autonomy even as the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Abiy tries to hold the country together with exhortations of national unity.
The Tigray leader in a letter to the African Union chair, has warned that Ethiopian forces are preparing to launch a large-scale offensive.
Debretsion Gebremichael also appeared open to talks, saying the AU was well-placed to bring parties to dialogue to “avert an all-out civil war.”