Confidential UN papers warn that, despite talk of success, the Ethiopian army faces heavy resistance and regional stability is at risk. Ethiopian government forces are meeting heavy resistance and face a protracted “war of attrition” in the northern region of Tigray.
The UN assessment, interviews and other international aid organisation analyses all suggest any expectation of a rapid and decisive victory is optimistic, and that resistance is likely to stiffen as Tigray troops fall back into mountains east of Mekelle.
Information has been difficult to obtain and confirm with communications cut to Tigray and journalists banned. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of people have been killed so far and many more have been displaced. More than 36,000 have fled into neighbouring Sudan, and large numbers are on the move within Tigray to avoid the fighting.
“Although Tigray regional forces may have initially been backfooted by the EDF’s swift advances, the terrain in eastern Tigray is easier to defend… and if they make a stand, they have the capability to stall the EDF advance,” one analysis reads, warning that this will then “change the dimension of the conflict from one of rapid movement into one of attrition”.
“After the EDF have reportedly ‘taken’ key towns such as Humera, Dansha, Shiraro, Alamata and Shire, and then pushed on with their advance, fighting has continued to be reported, or has subsequently erupted again in these locations,” one reliable account said. Well-trained and heavily armed frontline units from the Ethiopian army bypassing main towns to avoid costly urban fighting as they hurry towards Mekelle. But the militia and paramilitaries deployed in their wake are neither as well-equipped nor as disciplined and so are vulnerable to counter-attack. If Ethiopian forces continue to advance, their supply lines and rear areas will become more vulnerable to guerilla attacks and casualties will mount.
The reports depict a complex and dynamic conflict across much of Tigray, with major clashes in the west of the region – as Ethiopian forces sought to advance towards the strategic town of Humera – and in the south-west, along the main road to Mekelle. Heavy fighting has also been reported around the town of Alamata, six miles from the border with neighbouring Amhara province which is fiercely loyal to the central government. Ethiopian planes have launched air strikes, and Tigrayans have fired missiles into Amhara and Eritrea, which has supported the offensive to remove the TPLF. At least one massacre has been reported: it has been blamed on retreating Tigrayan militia targeting a community seen as loyal to the central government, but there is no confirmation of this.
“Even if the EDF are successful in their mission to take Mekelle,” the UN assessment warns, “this will not necessarily end the conflict. It is likely that a protracted asymmetric conflict and insurgency would continue. From a humanitarian perspective, the longer the conflict is drawn out, the more severe the crisis will become.”