NAIROBI, Kenya -- The fighters now retaking parts of Ethiopia's Tigray region will pursue soldiers from neighboring Eritrea back into their country and chase Ethiopian forces to Addis Ababa ”if that's what it takes" to weaken their military powers, their spokesman said Tuesday, as a conflict that has killed thousands of civilians looked certain to continue.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Getachew Reda said that “we’ll stop at nothing to liberate every square inch” of the Tigray region of 6 million people, nearly eight months after fighting erupted between the Tigray forces and Ethiopian soldiers backed by Eritrea.
He rejected the unilateral cease-fire Ethiopia’s government declared Monday as a “sick joke” and accused Ethiopia of long denying humanitarian aid to the Tigrayans it now “pretends to care about.” Ethiopia declared the unilateral cease-fire as its soldiers and hand-picked regional interim administration fled the Tigray regional capital following some of the fiercest fighting of the war.
“We want to stop the war as quickly as we can,” the Tigray spokesman said.
But he said liberating the region is not just about territory. “If there is still a menace next door,” whether it be in Eritrea, “extremists” from the neighboring Amhara region who have occupied western Tigray or Ethiopian forces, it’s about assuring Tigrayans’ security, he said.
The comments were sure to bring new alarm from the United States, United Nations and others who have pressed for an end to the fighting in Africa's second most populous country that has sent hundreds of thousands of Tigrayans into the world's worst famine crisis in a decade.
This week's swift turn in the war has left people scrambling to understand the implications for Tigray, as communications links remained largely cut.
Eritrean soldiers, accused by witnesses of some of the war’s worst atrocities against Tigrayans, left the towns of Shire, Axum and Adwa, witnesses said, but it was not clear whether the retreat was temporary. The information ministry of Eritrea, a longtime enemy of Tigray's former leaders and described by human rights groups as one of the world's most repressive countries, did not immediately respond to questions.
“We don't yet know if they are withdrawing” from Tigray altogether, acting U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Robert Godec told the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. He said the U.S. had seen no statement from Eritrea saying it was committed to the cease-fire after “what appears to be a significant withdrawal of Ethiopian national defense forces from Tigray."
The Tigray leaders have waged a guerrilla war since November after a political falling out with the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who had sidelined them from influential roles in Ethiopia's government and military. An Ethiopian military spokesman did not answer the phone Tuesday.
The arrival of Tigray forces in the regional capital, Mekele, on Monday was met with cheers. The fighters on Tuesday moved into Axum and Shire, a town that in recent months saw the arrival of hundreds of thousands of people fleeing intimidation in western Tigray and is a key staging area for humanitarian aid.
Tigray forces are now in control of much of the region after a major counteroffensive with mass popular support, International Crisis Group analyst William Davison said in a statement. They are "now in a position to facilitate access to many previously hard to reach areas,” he said, urging Ethiopia’s government not to sabotage the urgent humanitarian efforts.
But the Tigray forces' talk “indicates how distrustful they are of the cease-fire," Aly Verjee, a senior adviser at the United States Institute of Peace, told AP. “Of course, I think it’s highly irresponsible for them to say such things. It doesn’t do anything for people on the brink of famine. At the same time, I understand they're motivated by deep suspicion of Eritrean forces in particular.”
Major questions remained about the fate of the more than 1 million civilians that the United Nations has said remain in parts of Tigray that have been hard, if not impossible, to reach with aid. The United States has said up to 900,000 people now face famine conditions, in the world's worst hunger crisis in a decade.
That famine “is entirely man-made,” the acting U.S. assistant secretary of state said.
Sarah Charles, assistant to the administrator for the United States Agency for International Development, told the Washington hearing that the next week or two will be consequential. She urged Ethiopia to lift a “communications blackout” on Tigray and said forces from the Amhara region must lift checkpoints on key roads for aid delivery.
U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters that “the impact of the current situation on the humanitarian operations in the region remains unknown right now.” Operations have been “constrained for the past few days due to the ongoing fighting.” The airport in Mekele was closed, and routes to deliver aid were not open, he said.
Ethiopia has said the cease-fire is in part for the delivery of aid but will last only until the end of the crucial planting season in Tigray — which is in September.
In Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa, people said they weren't sure who to believe amid the battlefield claims, and hoped for peace.
“It’s the innocent children, farmers and the poor people that are at the front of the war and are suffering,” resident Biruk Dessalegn said.
Associated Press writer Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report