Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was at the front line Wednesday where government forces are battling rebels from the northernmost Tigray region, state-affiliated media said.
International alarm has mounted over the escalating year-long conflict, prompting foreign governments to tell their citizens to leave amid fears the Tigrayan rebels could march on the capital Addis Ababa.
Abiy, winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, “is now leading the counter-offensive” and “has been giving leadership from the battlefield as of yesterday,” Fana Broadcasting Corporate reported.
It was not clear where exactly Abiy, a former radio operator in the military who rose to lieutenant-colonel, had deployed, and state media did not broadcast images of him in the field.
Officials have not responded to requests for details about his mission and whereabouts.
The fighting in the north of Africa’s second most populous country has killed thousands of people and forced hundreds of thousands into famine-like conditions.
On Wednesday, UN chief Antonio Guterres called for a swift end to the fighting while on a visit to Colombia to mark the fifth anniversary of a peace deal between the government and former FARC rebels.
“The peace process in Colombia inspires me to make an urgent appeal today to the protagonists of the conflict in Ethiopia for an unconditional and immediate ceasefire to save the country,” he said.
Foreign envoys have also been frantically pushing for a ceasefire, though there have been few signs a breakthrough is coming.
Jeffrey Feltman, Washington’s special envoy for the Horn of Africa, said Tuesday that “nascent progress” risked being “outpaced by the military escalation by the two sides”.
The war erupted in November 2020 when Abiy sent troops into Tigray to topple its ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
He said the move was in response to TPLF attacks on federal army camps and promised a swift victory, but by late June the rebels had retaken most of Tigray including its capital Mekele.
Since then the TPLF has pushed into neighbouring Amhara and Afar regions, and this week it claimed to have seized a town just 220 kilometres (135 miles) from Addis Ababa.
Abiy’s announcement Monday that he would deploy to the front “has inspired many to… join the survival campaign”, Fana said Wednesday.
Hundreds of new recruits took part in a ceremony held Wednesday in their honour in the capital’s Kolfe district. As officials corralled sheep and oxen into trucks bound for the north, the recruits broke into patriotic songs and chants.
Even as it rallies citizens to fight, Abiy’s government insists the TPLF’s gains have been overstated, criticising what it describes as sensationalist media coverage and alarmist security advisories from Western embassies.
The war has triggered a humanitarian crisis, with accounts of massacres and mass rapes, and on Wednesday the United Nations expressed worry over reports of large-scale displacement from western Tigray, where the US has previously warned of ethnic cleansing.
“Tigray zonal authorities report of 8,000 new arrivals, potentially up to 20,000,” the UN refugee agency UNHCR said, adding that it could not immediately corroborate the figures.
Amhara forces occupied the fiercely contested area a year ago, with Amhara officials accusing the TPLF of illegally annexing it three decades earlier.
As Amhara civilians have poured in over the past year, Tigrayans have fled in the tens of thousands — either west into Sudan or east, deeper into Tigray.