Thousands of Ethiopian civilians have fled into neighboring Sudan to escape escalating conflict in their country’s northern region, with many more expected to follow, according to Sudanese officials and the United Nations (UN).
More than 7,000 refugees from the Ethiopian region of Tigray have entered Sudan, fleeing fighting between government and regional forces, said UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi on Wednesday.
“There are also many displaced people in Tigray, and 96,000 Eritrean refugees,” he said in a tweet. “If hostilities continue, the humanitarian impact will worsen.”
As of Tuesday night, more than 1,800 people from the Ethiopian region of Tigray had crossed the border and were traveling to the Sudanese state of Kassala, while hundreds more had arrived in the border area of Al-Luqdi, the Sudanese commissioner for refugees, Abdalla Suleman, told CNN.
The movement comes after Ethiopia’s federal government announced that it was “at war” with the ruling party of the Tigray region, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The federal army has since stepped up its military offensive, carrying out air strikes as part of Prime Minister and Nobel laureate Abiy Ahmed’s “law enforcement operation,” which has led to clashes across the area.
The governor of Kassala is preparing facilities to accommodate up to 20,000 people initially, a UN official told CNN. Although borders are officially closed, the governor has offered amnesty to refugees and the UN predicts up to 100,000 could cross over in the next year.
Nine million people adjacent to the front line fighting along Tigray’s borders are at high risk and conflict could lead to massive displacement of these people, the UN said in a statement.
The escalating fighting has led to casualties across the region, according to local reports and state media. On Tuesday, state-affliliated broadcaster Fana TV reported that Ethiopia’s federal army had killed 550 Tigray fighters. It is unclear whether these fighters were members of the TPLF.
CNN was not independently able to confirm the death tolls.
At least 17 Ethiopian military officers have breen arrested on suspicion of treason and accused of conspiring with the TPLF to cut off communications between North and Central Command, Fana TV reported Wednesday, citing the federal police commission. CNN has not been able to independently verify this.
The UN Office for Humanitarian Affairs said in its latest situation report that an aerial and road blockade and the regional communications black-out are significantly affecting aid assistance within Tigray. Even before the conflict, more than 600,000 people in the region were dependent on food relief, according to UN agencies.
Abiy came to power in 2018 on a reformist agenda promising to bridge divisions between regional governments, but officials in Tigray and other regions have complained that Abiy was only trying to solidify his rule from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital. While lauded internationally, his leadership has seen ethnic and political tensions rise significantly in several parts of the country, often with deadly consequences.
Violent conflict escalates
In a press briefing on Tuesday, Redwan Hussein, Ethiopia’s state minister for foreign affairs and spokesperson for the newly established state of emergency task force, told reporters that a dialogue with regional leaders would only take place once the TPLF was disarmed and members brought to justice.
“There will be a window of dialogue, that’s inevitable, but the question is when,” Redwan said, adding, “when is when these objectives are met, once we destroy these armaments.”
Redwan claimed the TPLF had significant military capabilities, including a rocket that could strike the capital. He did not provide proof of this allegation.
The spokesperson also confirmed that local forces had taken the Ethiopian military’s Northern Command post in the Tigray capital of Mekelle. CNN was unable to get comment from the TPLF leadership.
“They managed to subdue the whole compound because we did not have enough arms and personnel there,” Redwan said.
On Tuesday, the head of the TPLF, Debretsion Gebremichael, accused the neighbouring Eritrean government of launching attacks on state of Tigray. The accusation was denied by both the Eritrean government and the Ethiopian national army.
On Sunday, police detained Medihane Ekubamichael, the product editor of Addis Standard, the political news magazine said in a statement. He was released, but rearrested on Tuesday, his employer said in a tweet.
Four other journalists were detained overnight on Tuesday, Ethiopia’s chief human rights commissioner, Daniel Bekele, said on Wednesday.
International efforts are being stepped up to try and ease tensions in Ethiopia as the conflict threatens to drag the nation into a possible civil war.
The European Union’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, said Monday he had been “holding talks to support efforts to restore peace and political dialogue in Ethiopia.”
Borrell said he had spoken to Abiy to convey “the EU’s concern for the risks to the integrity of the country and the stability of the wider region should the current situation endure” and offered European support “for any action contributing to de-escalation of tensions, return to dialogue and securing rule of law.”
A United Nations spokesman said Monday that Secretary-General Antonio Guterres had delivered a similar message on Saturday, calling “for an immediate de-escalation of tensions.” He added that “humanitarian colleagues and their partners are finalizing a humanitarian response plan for Tigray.”
“In addition to Tigray, there are nearly nine million people at high risk due to the conflict living near the area. More than 6,000 people are affected by COVID-19 in the Tigray region. It is also one of the areas most affected by the desert locust infestation,” the spokesman said at a press briefing.
The UK’s Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, said he spoke with Abiy on Tuesday. He added to the international pressure for de-escalation, saying in a tweet that “civilians and humanitarian access must be protected.”
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged “immediate action to restore the peace” in a tweet on November 4.
Zecharias Zelalem and CNN’s Schams Elwazer, David McKenzie, Brent Swails and Richard Roth contributed to this report