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Battle Over Ethiopia's Defiant Northwest Region Of Tigray Ramps Up


We are covering a humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia that seems to be just getting worse. A conflict there has killed an untold number of people. Tens of thousands of Ethiopians have fled across the border into Sudan. This is all part of a battle over Ethiopia's northwest region of Tigray. Last night, Ethiopia's prime minister gave regional forces there three days to surrender, saying government forces are ready to launch an assault. NPR's Africa correspondent Eyder Peralta joins us from Nairobi. Hi, Eyder.


GREENE: Let's start with this threat from the prime minister. This sounds like something that could take this to another level.

PERALTA: Yeah. He says that this is the final step in bringing what he calls a treasonous regional government to justice. And for almost three weeks, his troops have been moving toward Mekelle, which is the capital of this regional state. And he says this is where the leaders of the TPLF, the Tigray People's Liberation Front, are hiding. And he is giving them three days to surrender or he promises a siege. And he does say that they will try to minimize damages and civilian casualties.

But yesterday on state TV, one of his colonels, Dejene Tsegaye, painted a pretty dire picture of the operation. He said that they were going to surround Mekelle with tanks, and then he gave a warning to civilians. Let's listen.


DEJENE TSEGAYE: (Through interpreter) From now on, our fight is with tanks and heavy machine guns. So I would like to ask residents of Mekelle to cooperate with federal forces and to keep themselves safe from heavy gunfire.

PERALTA: Like the prime minister, he asked civilians to give up members of the TPLF. He said that so far they had been able to distinguish civilians from militants, but that may be - that may no longer be the case. Human Rights Watch said that the contours of this attack, as presented by Colonel Dejene, that they seemed unlawful because they could amount to collective punishment.

GREENE: I mean, I mentioned the thousands fleeing. There have been people killed. I mean, tell us more about what you know at this point about the situation on the ground there.

PERALTA: I mean, so I think we need to be clear that this conflict has been very difficult to cover because we're doing it part blind. Phone lines and the Internet are off in Tigray, and the Ethiopian government has kept journalists, including NPR, out of the war zone and out of the country. So we're getting official government narratives. And every once in a while, the TPLF officials turn on their satellite terminals and send us press releases. But we're hearing the same thing from both sides, that they are winning. And we really don't have a way to independently verify troop movements or fighting or even civilian casualties.

GREENE: Can you just remind us of what's at the heart of this conflict, like the backdrop? I mean, this region holds a really important place in Ethiopia's modern history, right?

PERALTA: Yeah. I mean, so this is the new government of Ethiopia fighting with the old government. The TPLF toppled a communist government in 1991, and they stayed in power up until two years ago, when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power and sidelined them. This war started when the TPLF attacked federal military bases.

But this city that we're talking about, Mekelle, it's the seat of power for the TPLF, but it's also a place that has seen so much fighting and suffering. It was attacked by the communist Derg in the '70s and '80s. It was bombed again by the Eritreans in the '90s. And here they are again facing the prospect of a major military operation.

GREENE: All right, speaking about that humanitarian crisis and conflict in Ethiopia with NPR's Africa correspondent Eyder Peralta. Eyder, thanks a lot.

PERALTA: Thank you, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.