Nairobi, Kenya (AP) – Heavy gunfire erupted across the Ethiopian border town, and a police officer named Philemon immediately began to run.
Now, shaken and frightened he paused when asked about his wife and two young children, 5 and 2 years old. “I do not know where my family is now,” he said. “I do not know if they are behind in the fighting, somewhere in the growing group of thousands of new refugees on the Sudanese border.
In a phone interview with the Associated Press on Thursday, the 30-year-old gave one of the first witness accounts from what experts warned was a civil war with devastating humanitarian consequences. The conflict also erupts in neighboring countries.
Philemon, who gave only his first name, said that those who attacked Humera, a Tigre regional town last week, were coming from nearby Eritrea, but it was impossible to know whether the attackers were Eritrean forces.
His account defended allegations by Tigre region leaders that Eritrea had joined the week-long conflict in the region at the request of the federal government of Ethiopia, which considers the Tigre government illegal.
Philemon’s worries are very immediate. After a day trip on foot with another 30 people fleeing, he spent two days in Sudan, exposed to the sun and wind in the border town, which quickly sank. 10,000 refugees fled Up to Sudan, local authorities are preparing up to 200,000.
Tensions over the deadly conflict in Ethiopia have spread beyond its cut-off north Tigre region as the federal government on Thursday detained 150 “activists” facing charges of trying to crack down on “fear and terror” across the country.
The statement said the suspects were “racially diverse”, but officials said concerns among Tigrayans were high.
The Ethiopian parliament has voted to remove the immunity of 39 top regional officials, including its president, from prosecution, accusing them of rebellion and “attacking the federal army.”
Meanwhile, rallies were held in several cities in support of the federal government’s military offensive against the Tigre Regional Government and the Tigre People’s Liberation Front.
Ethiopia’s Nobel Peace Prize laureate Prime Minister Abi Ahmed has rejected international requests for talks and intensification, saying it will not come until the TPLF ruling “group” is removed and arrested and the heavily stockpiled arsenal is destroyed.
In a new statement, Abi stressed that the western part of the Tigre region had been liberated and accused the TPLF rulers of “trying to destroy Ethiopia”. He accused the TPLF of abusing its forces.
The abrupt slide towards the Civil War appeared months of preparation. Abi announced political reforms after taking office in 2018, which won him the Nobel but thwarted the TPLF, which dominates the Ethiopian ruling coalition. The TPLF then left the coalition and held local elections in September, defying the federal government.
Each side now thinks the other is illegal, and everyone blames the other for starting the fight.
Communications and transport links in the Tigre region have been severed, claims are difficult to verify, and the United Nations and others are warning of a humanitarian catastrophe as millions of people run out of food and fuel.
Federal forces showed no signs of faltering in the fighting, which included multiple airstrikes and hundreds were reported dead on each side. It is not clear how many civilians were among the dead.
The TPLF alleges that the effects of the conflict risk drawing, which is under pressure from Ethiopia’s neighbors, especially Sudan, the international community, the federal government of Ethiopia and now the Eritrean government, have joined the fight at Ethiopia’s request.
Experts fear that the Horn of Africa, one of the most strategic areas in the world, will be destabilized despite past peace-making efforts.
Tibor Nagy, America’s top diplomat to Africa, spoke with Ethiopia’s foreign minister on Wednesday, urging him to “take immediate action to restore peace and increase tensions,” a State Department spokesman said in an email. “The protection and defense of all American citizens and citizens is our priority.”
Sajjad Mohammed Sajid, the UN humanitarian chief in Ethiopia, told the EP that more than 1,000 civilians from different countries were trapped in the Tigre region.
Inside the Tigre area, long scratches appeared outside the bakery and trucks loaded with supplies were stranded at its borders. Fuel is already in the ration.
“Every global agency, the UN, is asking for a ceasefire, but we have not seen any agreement and there is no willingness to negotiate,” UN refugee agency spokesman Kisut Gibrigziaber told the AP late Wednesday.