NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — The spokesman for the fighters retaking parts of Ethiopia’s Tigray region says they will pursue soldiers from neighboring Eritrea back into their country and chase Ethiopian soldiers to Addis Ababa ”if that's what it takes" to weaken their military powers.
Getachew Reda in an interview with The Associated Press 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.”
“We want to stop the war as quickly as can,” the spokesman said. But he warned that liberating Tigray is not just about territory “if there is still a menace next door,” whether it be in Eritrea, “extremists” from the neighboring Amhara region or Ethiopian forces. It’s about assuring Tigrayans’ security, he said.
While Eritrean soldiers, accused by witnesses of some of the worst atrocities of the conflict, have withdrawn from the key Tigray towns of Shire, Axum and Adwa, Getachew told the AP they remained inside Tigray and must go.
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Soldiers from Eritrea withdrew from three key towns in Ethiopia’s Tigray region on Tuesday, a day after Tigray fighters took control of the regional capital from retreating Ethiopian forces and Ethiopia’s government declared a unilateral cease-fire. Tigray forces vowed to chase “enemies” out of the region, signaling no immediate end to the fighting.
The swift turn in the nearly eight-month war has left people scrambling to understand the implications for the region of 6 million people as communications links were largely cut. People in close contact with witnesses who confirmed the Eritreans' withdrawal spoke on condition of anonymity for their safety.
The Eritrean soldiers, accused by witnesses of some of the war’s worst atrocities, left the towns of Shire, Axum and Adwa but it was not immediately clear where they were going or whether the retreat was temporary. The information ministry of Eritrea, 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, the acting U.S. assistant secretary of state, Robert Godec, told the House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs. He said the U.S. had seen no statement from Eritrea, nor from the Tigray fighters, saying they are committed to the cease-fire.
Tigray’s former leaders said they control the regional capital, Mekele, after “what appears to be a significant withdrawal of Ethiopian national defense forces from Tigray,” Godec said.
The Tigray leaders, who have waged a guerrilla war since November after a political falling-out with the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, in a statement overnight called on supporters to “intensify their struggle until our enemies completely leave Tigray.”
The spokesman for the Tigray forces, Getachew Reda, could not immediately be reached. An Ethiopian military spokesman did not answer the phone.
The arrival of Tigray forces in Mekele on Monday was met with cheers after the interim regional administration, appointed by Ethiopia's government, fled following some of the most intense fighting of the war in Africa’s second-most populous country.
Tigray 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.
The Tigray forces' talk of pursuing enemies “indicates how distrustful they are of the cease-fire," Aly Verjee, a senior adviser at the United States Institute of Peace, told the 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 neighboring Amhara region who have occupied western Tigray must lift checkpoints on key roads for aid delivery.
U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters Tuesday 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.
Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed.
Cara Anna, The Associated Press