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Ethiopian rebels edge closer to Addis Ababa, as fears grow over all-out war

Ethiopian government declares state of emergency as rebels edge closer to capital
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What we covered

  • Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, marking one year of war in Tigray, pledged to bury his government’s enemies “with our blood.”
  • Tigrayan rebels and troops allied against Ethiopia’s central government are rapidly advancing on Addis Ababa, raising concerns that the city could fall.
  • One of the rebel groups claimed to have forces about 15 miles from the center of the capital, but eyewitnesses reported no sign of the fighters.
  • Ethiopian authorities on Tuesday announced a six-month nationwide state of emergency and called on citizens to take up arms to defend Addis Ababa.
  • The Tigray conflict has killed thousands, displaced over 2 million, fueled famine and given rise to a wave of atrocities.

Our live coverage of this story has ended. Read our latest story on what you need to know about the conflict in Ethiopia here.

Rebels claim to be 15 miles from Ethiopian capital. Eyewitnesses have yet to see fighters

One of the rebel groups in Ethiopia claims to have forces about 25 kilometers (15 miles) from the center of the capital Addis Ababa and says government troops are defecting to the rebels, but CNN cannot independently confirm either assertion.

Odaa Tarbii, a spokesman for the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), tweeted late Wednesday: “Today, 1,165 Oromia Special Forces defected to the OLA. 400 of them joined OLA forces in the vicinity of Laga Tafo. Our forces continue pushing on from all directions, we r very close to seeing the end of this oppressive dictatorship.”

The OLA is an outlawed armed group from Oromia, Ethiopia’s most populous region.

Laga Tafo lies just northeast of Addis Ababa. But an eyewitness in the town told CNN Thursday morning that there was no sign of rebel fighters there, schools were in session as usual, and life seemed normal except for communications disruptions. 

And a journalist based in Addis Ababa also told CNN Thursday that the outskirts of the city were quiet, with no rebel fighters visible.

As they have pushed the front line further south, fighters loyal to the TPLF, known as the Tigray Defense Forces (TDF), have allied with the OLA.

The rapid advance of the fighters, who said they had seized Dessie and Kombolcha, two key towns of on the road to Addis Ababa, has raised concerns among Ethiopia’s leaders that the capital could fall.

It is unclear, though, whether the rebels have the firepower to take the city and there are conflicting reports as to how close they are to the capital.

CNN has attempted to contact both the OLA and the TDF about the location of their fighters, but neither answered on Thursday.

Africa's "biggest road race" is postponed due to Ethiopia's state of emergency

A 10km run scheduled for November 14 in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa has been postponed due the state of emergency in the country, organizers announced Thursday. 

Race organizers said they had made the decision “with regret” to delay what they call “the biggest road race in Africa.”

They said a new date would be announced shortly.

Here's what you need to know about the spreading conflict in Ethiopia

Tigrayan forces parade captured Ethiopian government soldiers and allied militia members in open-top trucks, as they are taken to a detention center in Mekelle, in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, on October 22.

When Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019, he was lauded as a regional peacemaker. Now, he is presiding over a protracted civil conflict that by many accounts bears the hallmarks of genocide.

In November 2020, Abiy ordered a military offensive in the country’s northern Tigray region and promised that the armed dispute would be resolved quickly. One year on, the fighting is threatening to spiral into an all-out war that could destabilize the wider region.

Ethiopia was struggling with significant economic, ethnic and political challenges long before a feud between Abiy and the region’s former ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), bubbled over into unrest.

But now, with escalating hostilities in other areas of Ethiopia, fears are growing that the fighting in Tigray could spark a wider crisis.

Take a closer look at the situation:

A damaged tank stands on a road north of Mekele, the capital of Tigray on February 26, 2021. - Tigray has been the theater of fighting since early November, when Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced military operations against the northern region's former ruling party, the Tigray People's Liberation Front, accusing it of attacking federal army camps. Pro-government troops took the regional capital Mekele in late November but clashes have persisted in the region. (Photo by EDUARDO SOTERAS / AFP) (Photo by EDUARDO SOTERAS/AFP via Getty Images)

Ethiopia is at war with itself. Here's what you need to know

Ethiopia's state of emergency is now official, state TV reports

A six-month state of emergency announced by Ethiopian authorities earlier this week was formally approved by the country’s House of People’s Representatives on Thursday morning, state-affiliated Fana TV reported. 

The legislature’s approval is the final step in the process, meaning the state of emergency is now official. 

The provision, originally announced by Ethiopian Attorney General Gedion Timothewos on Tuesday, allows for the conscription of citizens who own firearms and are of age for military service, road blocks, communication outages, the search and arrest of people deemed cooperating with “terrorist groups,” among other things.

The age for military service in Ethiopia is 18. 

This move comes a year to the day after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered the military assault against Tigrayan forces in the north of the country that sparked the current conflict.

Global calls grow for an immediate ceasefire in Ethiopia

The European Union on Thursday joined calls from the United States for an immediate ceasefire in Ethiopia, warning that the fighting there has created a “devastating humanitarian crisis” and reiterating that there is “no military solution” to the conflict.

As rebel forces have pushed the front line further south, the US and the United Nations have also voiced their concern over the deteriorating situation.

A State Department spokesperson said Wednesday that the US was growing “increasingly troubled by the expansion of combat operations and intercommunal violence in Ethiopia” and called on Ethiopians to “commit to peace and resolution of grievances through dialogue.”

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday said Washington was alarmed over reports that Tigrayan forces had taken over two towns on the road to the Ethiopian capital, and urged all parties to begin ceasefire negotiations.

The US is preparing to issue sanctions against parties to the conflict, under an executive order signed by President Joe Biden in September, according to senior Biden administration officials.

UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet told CNN Wednesday she was “very concerned” about the recent escalation of violence in Ethiopia, which she said, “could lead to a real civil war with a lot of bloodshed and with a lot more pain and suffering.” It also risks fragmenting Ethiopia as a state, she added.

Bachelet made the comments after the release of a joint investigation by the UN Human Rights Office and Ethiopia’s state-appointed human rights commission, which found that “all parties” in the Tigray conflict were culpable for carrying out atrocities.

Bachelet called on all groups to “heed the repeated calls to end hostilities and seek a lasting ceasefire.”

Ethiopian government is sending an "explicit threat to the UN and NGOs," warns ex-UN official

A former United Nations employee in Ethiopia has called a new report on human rights violations in Tigray a “good starting point,” but highlighted the severe limitations the UN and non-governmental organizations face in the region. 

David Del Conte was a UN Emergency Relief Manager for Ethiopia and now leads the #StopTigrayFamine Campaign at Refugees International, an independent humanitarian organization.

Speaking on CNN’s Connect the World, he said the joint investigation by the UN Human Rights Office and Ethiopia’s state-appointed human rights commission – which found all parties in the conflict to be in gross violation of human rights – didn’t go far enough.

A “proper independent investigation holds all responsible to account,” he said.

Since fighting broke out between the Ethiopian government and Tigray’s regional ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), in November 2020, the government has restricted access to the northern region, hampering humanitarian relief distribution. Last month, Ethiopia ordered seven senior UN officials to be expelled from the country, including from organizations coordinating aid efforts, accusing the officials “meddling in the internal affairs of the country.” The UN has strongly denied that claim.

Del Conte said the government’s continued actions against these organizations is sending “an explicit threat to the NGOs.”

Del Conte was UN-OCHA Deputy Country Director in Ethiopia from 2012 to 2016, a period of two severe droughts in the region. The UN was responding to people’s chronic needs by supporting the government system and structures – a dramatic difference, he says, from what the UN is experiencing now.

Kenya increases security at Ethiopia border

Kenya has ramped up security along its border with Ethiopia as fighting intensifies there, a police spokesman told CNN Thursday.

“We’re on high alert along our 800km-long (500 mile) common border with Ethiopia. We have enhanced security with patrols, roadblocks on major roads from the border and normal surveillance. There has been no influx of people and all is calm right now,” Kenya police spokesman Bruno Shioso said.

US State Department authorizes departure of non-emergency personnel from Ethiopia 

The State Department on Wednesday authorized the departure of non-emergency government personnel and family members from Ethiopia “due to armed conflict, civil unrest, and possible supply shortages,” according to a security alert from the US Embassy in Addis Ababa. 

On Tuesday, the State Department raised its travel advisory level to the highest – Level 4: Do Not Travel – after Ethiopian authorities announced a nationwide state of emergency amid escalating violence.

State Department spokesperson Ned Price reiterated on Wednesday that the US is “gravely concerned by the escalating violence” and “the expansion of the fighting” in northern Ethiopia and other parts of the country.

Price also confirmed that America’s special envoy for the Horn of Africa, Jeffrey Feltman, will travel to Ethiopia on Thursday.

The government of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed refused a visit from him as recently as last month, according to a senior administration official, and it is unclear who in Ethiopia’s government Feltman will meet with during his trip.

The African Union’s chair, Moussa Faki Mahamat, who is based in Addis, said that he had met with Feltman to discuss developments in Ethiopia on Thursday.

Facebook takes down Ethiopian Prime Minister's post for inciting violence

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed attends an event in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on June 13.

Facebook has removed a post by Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed for inciting violence, after he called on citizens to take up arms and fight armed rebels advancing on the capital Addis Ababa.

“Our people should march … with any weapon and resources they have to defend, repulse and bury the terrorist TPLF,” Abiy said in a Facebook post Sunday, referring to Tigray’s former ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front.

An armed group fighting under the banner of the TPLF, known as the Tigray Defense Force (TDF), has joined forces with the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) in their push to the capital.

A spokesperson from the newly coined Meta Company said in a statement that it was notified of Abiy’s post for violating Facebook politics on inciting violence.

“As the ongoing conflict in Ethiopia intensifies, we are committed to helping keep people safe and preventing online and offline harm through our platforms,” the spokesperson said in a statement.

“We were made aware of a post by Ethiopia’s Prime Minister and removed this for violating our policies against inciting and supporting violence. At Meta, we remove content from individuals or organizations that violates our Community Standards, no matter who they are.”

The removal comes after criticisms that Facebook hasn’t done enough to police hate speech and inflammatory content on its platform in Ethiopia.

Facebook’s checkered track-record on Ethiopia:

The social media giant ranks Ethiopia in its highest priority tier for countries at risk of conflict, but internal documents obtained by CNN last month revealed that Facebook’s moderation efforts were no match for the flood of inflammatory content on its platform.

The documents are among dozens of disclosures made to the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and provided to Congress in redacted form by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen’s legal counsel. A consortium of 17 US news organizations, including CNN, has reviewed the redacted versions received by Congress. Haugen said one of her core motivations for gathering the internal documents was bringing to light “how badly Facebook is handling places like Ethiopia.”

They show employees warning managers about how Facebook was being used by “problematic actors,” including states and foreign organizations, to spread hate speech and content inciting violence in Ethiopia, where its user base is large and growing. The documents also indicate that the company has, in many cases, failed to adequately scale up staff or add local language resources to protect people in these places.

A Facebook spokesperson told CNN in October that the company has been “actively focused on Ethiopia,” and, over the past two years, has invested in adding more staff with local expertise, including in local languages, to improve its proactive detection of harmful content in the country. The spokesperson also said that the company had improved its reporting tools for people in Ethiopia to make it faster and easier for them to report content they believe violates its community standards.

Read more here:

In this Thursday, May 6, 2021 photo, the city of Mekele is seen through a bullet hole in a stairway window of the Ayder Referral Hospital, in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia. Ethiopian military airstrikes have hit the capital of the country's Tigray region Monday, Oct. 18, 2021, according to witnesses.

Facebook knew it was being used to incite violence in Ethiopia. It did little to stop the spread, documents show

United Nations slams possible "war crimes" in Ethiopia

United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, center, holds a news conference about a joint investigation into the year-long war in Ethiopia's northern Tigray region on November 3 in Geneva, Switzerland. On the left is Maarit Kohonen Sheriff, chief of the UN's Africa Branch, and to the right is Françoise Mianda, the UN's section chief of East and Southern Africa.

The United Nations on Wednesday condemned possible “war crimes” uncovered in a joint investigation into the bloody year-long war in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region.

The highly anticipated report was published almost a year to the day since Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered a military offensive against Tigray’s ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Twelve months on, the fighting has left thousands dead, displaced more than 2 million people from their homes, fueled famine and given rise to a wave of atrocities.

Now, with combined rebel forces edging closer to Addis Ababa, fears are growing that the conflict could spiral into all-out war.

The joint investigation by the UN Human Rights Office and Ethiopia’s state-appointed human rights commission (EHRC) released on Wednesday offers the most comprehensive look to date into the conflict’s impact on civilians, detailing extra-judicial killings, torture, sexual and gender-based violence, violations against refugees, and forced displacement.

The investigation draws from interviews with 269 victims and witnesses of alleged violations, who detail horrific abuse:

A 26-year-old woman in Adet, who said she was gang-raped by Eritrean soldiers in front of her 3-year-old daughter. A man in Mai Kadra attacked by a Tigrayan youth group with machetes, shot in the back and thrown into a fire. A Tigrayan fighter who said she saw Ethiopian soldiers torture prisoners at a military camp with electric cables, plastic-covered metal rods and wooden sticks.

It is the only human rights probe to have been allowed into the blockaded Tigray region since fighting broke out, and may be the best shot that the international community has at establishing the facts on the ground.

Yet the UN and EHRC stopped short of calling the conflict in Tigray a genocide or laying blame for human rights violations at the feet of one group, saying that all parties to the conflict had “committed violations of international human rights” which “may amount to war crimes.”

The joint investigation is a rare partnership that has raised eyebrows among Tigrayans, human rights groups and other observers, who have flagged concerns about its independence from government influence. But the UN on Wednesday reaffirmed its impartiality.

“Of course, it is impartial … the report stands for itself,” UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said during the Geneva news conference, adding: “We did not come under pressure from the government.”

But she acknowledged that investigators were hampered by restricted access to some sites in Tigray, where eyewitnesses and rights groups say some of the worst atrocities of the conflict have been perpetrated.

Bachelet also confirmed that a UN human rights officer who worked on the report was among seven UN officials declared “persona non grata” and expelled from Ethiopia last month on accusations of “meddling in domestic issues” – a claim that she rejected.

Rebels advance on Ethiopian capital

Authorities announced a nationwide state of emergency on Tuesday and called on citizens to take up arms to defend Addis Ababa, as troops allied against Ethiopia’s central government advance on the capital.

Fighters from the Tigray Defense Force (TDF) and the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) claimed to have seized two key towns in Amhara, on the road to Addis Ababa on Sunday. The OLA is an outlawed armed group from Oromia, the country’s most populous region.

The rapid advance of the fighters has raised concerns among Ethiopia’s leaders that the capital could fall. Abiy has urged citizens to take up arms and fight the Tigrayan forces.

Addis Ababa’s city administration was instructing residents on Wednesday to register their weapons and gather in local neighborhoods to “safeguard” their surroundings, Reuters reported.

It marks a dramatic escalation in the Tigray conflict, which has spilled over into ethnic violence in neighboring regions and has the potential to pull Africa’s second-most populous country apart.