NAIROBI – Ethiopia's government marked a year of war by lashing out Thursday in response to international alarm about hate speech, comparing the rival Tigray forces to “a rat that strays far from its hole” and saying the country is close to “burying the evil forces."
The statement from the government communication service, posted on social media and confirmed by a government spokesman, came amid urgent new efforts to calm the escalating war as a U.S. special envoy arrived and the president of neighboring Kenya and others called for an immediate cease-fire.
State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters that “we are speaking as starkly as we can” in urging U.S. citizens to leave the country.
The war that has killed thousands of people and displaced millions since November 2020 threatens to engulf Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa. Tigray forces seized key cities in recent days and linked up with another armed group, leading the government of Africa’s second-most populous country to declare a national state of emergency with sweeping detention powers.
U.S. special envoy Jeffrey Feltman, who this week insisted that “there are many, many ways to initiate discreet talks” toward peace, met Thursday with Ethiopia’s deputy prime minister and ministers of defense and finance, and his visit continues Friday.
Efforts to engage Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, on peace talks have failed. United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he spoke with Abiy on Wednesday “to offer my good offices to create the conditions for a dialogue so the fighting stops.”
The U.N. Security Council scheduled a open meeting followed by closed consultations Friday afternoon on the escalating violence in Ethiopia at the request of Ireland, Kenya, Niger, Tunisia and St. Vincent & The Grenadines.
Council members are considering a press statement calling for an immediate cessation of the expanding and intensifying military clashes, an end to hate speech, and unrestricted access to tackle the world’s worst hunger crisis in a decade in the Tigray region, according to a draft obtained by The Associated Press.
But last week a congressional aide told The Associated Press “there have been talks of talks with officials, but when it gets to the Abiy level and the senior (Tigray forces) level, the demands are wide, and Abiy doesn’t want to talk.”
Instead, the prime minister has urged citizens to rise up and “bury” the Tigray forces who long dominated the national government before he came to power. On Wednesday, Facebook said it had removed a post by Abiy with that language, saying it violated policies against inciting violence. It was a rare action against a head of state or government.
The government statement on Thursday took aim not only at Facebook, accusing it of showing its “true colors,” but also at media, humanitarian groups and others allegedly “working hand in hand with the enemy in propagating its false narrative.”
But Ethiopia's government aimed its harshest language at the Tigray forces. “TPLF and its puppets are being encircled by our forces. As the saying goes, ‘a rat that strays far from its hole is nearer to death,’” the statement said, referring to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front.
The U.N. special adviser on the prevention of genocide, Alice Wairimu Nderitu, told an online event Thursday that dehumanizing speech in Ethiopia is “of extreme concern,” and she warned that the risk exists of the war spilling across borders and “becoming something completely unmanageable.” She warned that ethnic-based militias are “so dangerous in this context.”
Kenya increased security along its borders amid fears of a wave of Ethiopians fleeing as one of the world's worst humanitarian crises spreads, while its foreign ministry said statements inciting ordinary citizens into the conflict “must be shunned.” Uganda’s president called for a meeting of East African leaders, and the European Union warned of “fragmentation and widespread armed conflict.”
Tigray forces spokesman Getachew Reda said the fighters had “joined hands” with another armed group, the Oromo Liberation Army, to seize the city of Kemisse, even closer to the capital.
“Joint operations will continue in the days and weeks ahead,” he tweeted.
A security source confirmed the claim and said Tigray forces were pushing east as well as south toward the capital. The source spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to journalists.
All sides in the war have committed abuses, a joint U.N. human rights investigation said Wednesday, while millions of people in the government-blockaded Tigray region are cut off from the world. The U.N. says no humanitarian aid has entered Tigray since Ethiopian military airstrikes resumed there on Oct. 18, and 80% of essential medication is no longer available.
The Tigray forces say they are pressuring the government to end the blockade, but the spreading insecurity as they push south through the neighboring Amhara region has hampered aid delivery to hundreds of thousands of hungry people.
A university staffer who fled the Amhara town of Woldiya before Tigray forces arrived weeks ago said friends there were climbing nearby hillsides to call the outside world with reports of low food supplies and people drinking from rivers, while electricity is cut. There is no aid in the occupied areas, Alemayehu said, giving only his first name for his security.
“I wish the war ends before it moves to the capital, that’s my prayer to God," he said, adding that he opposes the Tigray fighters.
With the government statements and the new state of emergency, ethnic Tigrayans in the capital told the AP they were hiding in their homes as authorities carried out house-to-house searches and stopped people on the streets to check identity cards, which everyone must now carry.
One lawyer, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, estimated that thousands have been detained this week, citing conversations with “many people from the four corners of the city.” He said Tigrayan lawyers like him were powerless to help because of their ethnicity.
“Our only hope now is the (Tigray forces),” said one young woman, Rahel, whose husband was detained on Tuesday while going to work as a merchant but has not been charged. “They might not save us, to be honest. I've already given up on my life, but if our families can be saved, I think that's enough.”
Another Tigrayan, Yared, said his brother, a businessman, was detained on Monday, and when he went to the police station, he saw dozens of other Tigrayans.
“It’s crazy, my friends in Addis, non-Tigrayans, are calling me and telling me not to leave the house,” Yared said.
“They go through your phone, and if you have some material about the Tigray war that would be suggesting supporting the war, they would just detain you,” he said. “The past four days have been the worst by far, the scope at which they're detaining people, it’s just terrorizing. We don’t feel safe in our homes anymore.”
Matthew Lee in Washington and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed.