NAIROBI, Kenya — Secret meetings with a dictator. Clandestine troop movements. Months of quiet preparation for a war that was supposed to be swift and bloodless.
New evidence shows that Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, had been planning a military campaign in the northern Tigray region for months before war erupted one year ago, setting off a cascade of destruction and ethnic violence that has engulfed Ethiopia, Africa’s second most populous country.
Mr. Abiy, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate seen recently in fatigues commanding troops on the battlefront, insists that war was foisted upon him — that ethnic Tigrayan fighters fired the first shots in November 2020 when they attacked a federal military base in Tigray, slaughtering soldiers in their beds. That account has become an article of faith for Mr. Abiy and his supporters.
In fact, it was a war of choice for Mr. Abiy — one with wheels set in motion even before the Nobel Peace Prize win in 2019 that turned him, for a time, into a global icon of nonviolence.
Tigrayans routed the Ethiopian troops and their Eritrean allies over the summer and last month came within 160 miles of the capital, Addis Ababa — prompting Mr. Abiy to declare a state of emergency.
Recently, the pendulum has swung back, with government forces retaking two strategic towns that had been captured by the Tigrayans — the latest twist in a conflict that has already cost tens of thousands of lives and pushed hundreds of thousands into famine-like conditions.
Analysts say that Mr. Abiy’s journey from peacemaker to battlefield commander is a cautionary tale of how the West, desperate to find a new hero in Africa, got this leader spectacularly wrong.
“The West needs to make up for its mistakes in Ethiopia,” said Alex Rondos, formerly the European Union’s top diplomat in the Horn of Africa. “It misjudged Abiy. It empowered Isaias. Now the issue is whether a country of 110 million people can be prevented from unraveling.”
The Nobel Committee Takes a Chance
Accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in December 2019, Mr. Abiy, a former soldier, drew on his own experience to eloquently capture the horror of conflict.
his first months in power, Mr. Abiy, then 41, freed political prisoners, unshackled the press and promised free elections in Ethiopia. His peace deal with Eritrea, a pariah state, was a political moonshot for the strife-torn Horn of Africa region.
Even so, the five-member Norwegian Nobel Committee knew it was taking on a chance on Mr. Abiy, said Henrik Urdal of Peace Research Institute Oslo, which analyzes the committee’s decisions.
announced to applause that he was nominating Mr. Abiy for a Nobel Peace Prize.
Back in Sweden, Dr. Kontie persuaded Anders Österberg, a parliamentarian from a low-income Stockholm district with a large immigrant population, to join his cause. Mr. Österberg traveled to Ethiopia, met with Mr. Abiy and was impressed.
at least two nominations for Mr. Abiy that year.
In selecting Mr. Abiy, the Nobel Committee hoped to encourage him further down the path of democratic reforms, Mr. Urdal said.
Even then, though, there were signs that Mr. Abiy’s peace deal wasn’t all it seemed.
reopened borders, were rolled back or reversed in a matter of months. Promised trade pacts failed to materialize, and there was little concrete cooperation, the Ethiopian officials said.
Eritrea’s spies, however, gained an edge. Ethiopian intelligence detected an influx of Eritrean agents, some posing as refugees, who gathered information about Ethiopia’s military capabilities, a senior Ethiopian security official said.
The Eritreans were particularly interested in Tigray, he said.
Mr. Isaias had a long and bitter grudge against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, which dominated Ethiopia for nearly three decades until Mr. Abiy came to power in 2018. He blamed Tigrayan leaders for the fierce border war of 1998 to 2000 between Ethiopia and Eritrea, a former province of Ethiopia, in which as many as 100,000 people were killed. He also blamed them for Eritrea’s painful international isolation, including United Nations sanctions.
For Mr. Abiy, it was more complicated.
He served in the T.P.L.F.-dominated governing coalition for eight years and was made a minister in 2015. But as an ethnic Oromo, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, he never felt fully accepted by Tigrayans and suffered numerous humiliations, former officials and friends said.
visited the ancient Amhara city of Gondar in November 2018, chanting, “Isaias, Isaias, Isaias!”
Later, a troupe of Eritrean singers and dancers visited Amhara. But the delegation included Eritrea’s spy chief, Abraha Kassa, who used the trip to meet with Amhara security leaders, the senior Ethiopian official said. Eritrea later agreed to train 60,000 troops from the Amhara Special Forces, a paramilitary unit that later deployed to Tigray.
advocated an effective merger of Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti — a suggestion that dismayed Ethiopian officials who saw it as straight from the playbook of Mr. Isaias.
Aides also saw the remarks as further proof of Mr. Abiy’s impulsive tendencies, leading them to cancel his news conference during the Nobel ceremonies in Oslo 10 months later.
Irreconcilable Visions Lead to War
Mr. Abiy viewed the Tigrayans as a threat to his authority — perhaps even his life — from his first days in power.
The Tigrayans had preferred another candidate as prime minister, and Mr. Abiy told friends he feared Tigrayan security officials were trying to assassinate him, an acquaintance said.
At the prime minister’s residence, soldiers were ordered to stand guard on every floor. Mr. Abiy purged ethnic Tigrayans from his security detail and created the Republican Guard, a handpicked unit under his direct control, whose troops were sent for training to the United Arab Emirates — a powerful new ally also close to Mr. Isaias, a former Ethiopian official said.
The unexplained killing of the Ethiopian military chief, Gen. Seare Mekonnen, an ethnic Tigrayan who was shot dead by a bodyguard in June 2019, heightened tensions.
violent clashes between police officers and protesters erupted across the Oromia region, culminating in the death in June 2020 of a popular singer.
publicly appealed to both sides to halt “provocative military deployments.” The next evening, Tigrayan forces attacked an Ethiopian military base, calling it a pre-emptive strike.
Eritrean soldiers flooded into Tigray from the north. Amhara Special Forces arrived from the south. Mr. Abiy fired General Adem and announced a “law enforcement operation”in Tigray.
Ethiopia’s ruinous civil war was underway.
A New York Times reporter contributed reporting from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
RUKLA, Lithuania — The emigrants hitchhiked overnight to the Dysna River, the border of their native Belarus. They thought they could wade across the frigid waters, but the spot they chose in haste proved to be so deep they had to swim.
On the other side, at dawn two weeks ago, they found a house with a light on and asked for the police. They were fleeing the authoritarian regime of President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, and seeking asylum in neighboring Lithuania, a member of the European Union. Taken to a makeshift camp at a border guard station, they joined about a dozen Iraqis, some Chechens and someone from Southeast Asia.
“We’ve been here for weeks, months,” a migrant told them, according to one of the Belarusians, Aleksandr Dobriyanik. “We know you’ll leave here in just a couple days.”
uprising against Mr. Lukashenko’s fraudulent 2020 re-election sparked a crackdown in which anyone who sympathized with the opposition is a potential target. It has approved 71asylum requests from Belarusians this year. The U.S. State Department commended the country last week for “offering safe haven to many Belarusian democracy advocates,” including Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the opposition leader.
clashes with Polish police have made worldwide headlines.
Amid the crush of migration, the paths of Belarusians and other migrants intersect at holding facilities across Lithuania. At one migrant camp, a Syrian barber explained to his Belarusian tentmate that his family spent their life savings to get to Europe and now had “no way back.” Mr. Dobriyanik met men fleeing their native Chechnya region of Russia, who railed against President Vladimir V. Putin.
Lithuania, with a population of less than three million, has struggled to manage the thousands of new arrivals, and this month the government declared a state of emergency. Lithuanian leaders have called the migrants a “hybrid weapon” wielded by Mr. Lukashenko to “attack the democratic world.”
indefinite military service in Eritrea, then flew to Belarus as civil war flared in Ethiopia. The woman, who did not want her name used because she feared for her family in Eritrea, stayed in Belarus for months until she found a way to enter Lithuania.
“We came running from a dictator government,” she said, “and we were stuck in a dictator government.”
NAIROBI, Kenya — The family was startled awake by a loud bang in the middle of the night on the gate of their home on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia.
Police officers barged in without a warrant, ransacking the living room and looking under the beds. They seized three members of the family, among them a 76-year-old, one-legged amputee yanked from bed while his sons begged to go in his place.
“They showed him no mercy even after he cried, ‘I am disabled and diabetic,’” said the man’s nephew, Kirubel, who would give only his first name for fear of reprisals.
The family is among hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of Ethiopians belonging to the Tigrayan ethnic group who have been rounded up and detained in the capital and beyond in recent weeks.
routed the Ethiopian army in Tigray, swept south, recently captured two strategic towns and threatened to advance toward the capital.
On Nov. 2, the government declared a state of emergency, and the resulting roundups have swept up anyone of Tigrayan descent, many of whom had no ties to the rebels or even affinity for them. They were not just young men and women, but also mothers with children and the elderly, according to human rights advocates and interviews with nearly a dozen family members and friends of detainees.
They have been seized off the streets, in their homes and even in workplaces — including banks, schools and shopping centers — and taken to overcrowded cells in police stations and detention facilities.
Tigrayans have been targeted by the police based on a mix of hints: their surnames, details listed on identification cards and drivers licenses, even the way they speakAmharic, the national language of Ethiopia.
said Tuesday through a spokeswoman. “Its provisions are extremely broad, with vague prohibitions going as far as encompassing ‘indirect moral’ support for what the government has labeled ‘terrorist groups.’”
The ethnically motivated detentions come amid a significant rise in online hate speech, which is only adding fuel to the civil war tearing apart Africa’s second-most populous nation. Reports of massacres, ethnic cleansing and widespread sexual assault by all sides in the conflict have undermined the vision of Ethiopian unity that Mr. Abiy, the prime minister and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, promised when he rose to power more than three years ago.
The war between Ethiopian federal forces and their allies and Tigrayan rebel fighters has left thousands of people dead, at least 400,000 living in famine-like conditions and millions displaced. It risks engulfing the whole of Ethiopia and the wider Horn of Africa.
Mr. Abiy’s determination to prosecute the war seems to have been only hardened by economic threats from the Biden administration, which has imposed sanctions on his military allies in neighboring Eritrea and suspended Ethiopia from duty-free access to the U.S. market.
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, who is traveling to Kenya, Nigeria and Senegal this week, has expressed worry that Ethiopia could “implode.”
defend the capital “with our blood” even as African and Western envoys sought to broker a cease-fire.
Police officials have defended the arrests, saying they were seizing supporters of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the country’s former dominant party, which Ethiopia now classifies as a terrorist organization.
Activists, however, say the state of emergency provisions are so nebulous that they give security officials unfettered latitude. The provisions allow for the search of any person’s home or their arrest without a warrant “upon reasonable suspicion” that they cooperate with terrorist groups.
Laetitia Bader, the Horn of Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said “the state of emergency is legitimizing and legalizing unlawful practices” and creating “a real climate of fear.”
Many ethnic Tigrayans say they now fear leaving home. Almost all those who agreed to be interviewed declined to be identified by name for fear that they might be arrested or face retaliation.
began a military campaign in the country’s northern Tigray region, hoping to vanquish the Tigray People’s Liberation Front — his most troublesome political foe.
Rebels turned the tide. Despite Mr. Abiy’s promise of a swift campaign, the Ethiopian military suffered a major defeat in June when it was forced to withdraw from Tigray. Now the fighting is rapidly moving south.
Tigrayan forces close in. In late October, Tigrayan rebels captured two towns near Addis Ababa, the nation’s capital. The government declared a state of emergency and called on citizens to arm themselves.
No end in sight. President Biden has threatened to impose sanctions on the country to coax the sides to the negotiating table, but the war’s current trajectory could cause the collapse of Ethiopia.
In Addis Ababa, security officers have demanded that landlords identify Tigrayan tenants. In one secondary school, a teacher said four Tigrayan teachers had been taken into custody as they ate lunch after officers arrived with a letter from the intelligence service containing their names.
A merchant in Addis Ababa, 38, was picked up by security officers after he opened his mobile phone accessories shop. A nearby shop owner phoned that news to the seized merchant’s wife, who said she left their two children with a neighbor and rushed to the shop — only to find it closed and her husband gone.
After a three-day search, the wife said, she found her husband in a crowded Addis Ababa detention facility with no proper bedding or food.
In Addis Ababa, rights groups say, police stations are so full of detainees that the authorities have moved the overflow to heavily guarded makeshift facilities, among them youth recreation centers, warehouses and one major prison. With no access to lawyers, some relatives of detainees say they will not approach these facilities, fearful they could be arrested too.
whistle-blower, have long accused Facebook of failing to moderate hateful incitement speech. With pressure mounting, Facebook this month deleted a post by Mr. Abiy urging citizens to “bury” the Tigray People’s Liberation Front.
Twitter also disabled its Trends section in Ethiopia, citing “the risks of coordination that could incite violence or cause harm.”
Timnit Gebru, an Ethiopian-born American computer scientist who spotted and reported some of the posts on Facebook, said the measures were insufficient and amounted to “a game of whack-a-mole.”
For now, many Tigrayans worry that it’s only a matter of time before they are seized. One businessman, who paid a $400 bribe for his release, said officers had told him they would come for him again.
It’s a fate Kirubel said he worried about as his disabled uncle and cousins remained detained.
“My children worry that I will not come back when I leave the house,” he said. “Everyone is afraid.”
Employees of The New York Times contributed reporting from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
A scrappy force of local Tigrayan recruits scored a cascade of battlefield victories against the Ethiopian military, one of Africa’s strongest. Times journalists witnessed the decisive week in an eight-month civil war.
Text by Declan Walsh
Photographs by Finbarr O’Reilly
SAMRE, Ethiopia — The Tigrayan fighters whooped, whistled and pointed excitedly to a puff of smoke in the sky, where an Ethiopian military cargo plane trundling over the village minutes earlier had been struck by a missile.
Smoke turned to flames as the stricken aircraft broke in two and hurtled toward the ground. Later, in a stony field strewn with smoking wreckage, villagers picked through twisted metal and body parts. For the Tigrayan fighters, it was a sign.
“Soon we’re going to win,” said Azeb Desalgne, a 20-year-old with an AK-47 over her shoulder.
The downing of the plane on June 22 offered bracing evidence that the conflict in the Tigray region in northern Ethiopia was about to take a seismic turn. A Tigrayan guerrilla army had been fighting to drive out the Ethiopian military for eight months in a civil war marked by atrocities and starvation. Now the fight seemed to be turning in their favor.
The war erupted in November, when a simmering feud between Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Tigrayan leaders, members of a small ethnic minority who had dominated Ethiopia for much of the three previous decades, exploded into violence.
airstrike had struck a crowded village market that day, killing dozens. We watched as the first casualties arrived at Mekelle’s largest hospital.
Days later, three aid workers from Doctors Without Borders were brutally murdered by unknown assailants.
In the countryside, the war was moving at a furious pace. Ethiopian military positions fell like dominoes. Hours after the Tigrayans shot down the military cargo plane, we reached a camp holding several thousand newly captured Ethiopian soldiers, about 30 miles south of Mekelle.
Clustered behind a barbed wire fence, the prisoners erupted into applause when we stepped from our vehicle — hoping, they later explained, that we were Red Cross workers.
Some were wounded, others barefoot — Tigrayans confiscated their boots as well as their guns, they said — and many pleaded for help. “We have badly wounded soldiers here,” said Meseret Asratu, 29, a platoon commander.
Further along the road was the battlefield where others had died. The bodies of Ethiopian soldiers were scattered across a rocky field, untouched since a fight four days earlier, now swelling in the afternoon sun.
Personal items cast aside nearby, amid empty ammunition boxes and abandoned uniforms, hinted at young lives interrupted: dog-eared photos of loved ones, but also university certificates, chemistry textbooks and sanitary pads — a reminder that women fight on both sides of the conflict.
Stragglers were still being rounded up. The next day, Tigrayan fighters marched five just-captured prisoners up a hill, where they slumped to the ground, exhausted.
Dawit Toba, a glum 20-year-old from the Oromia region of Ethiopia, said he had surrendered without firing a shot. War in Tigray was not like he had imagined it. “We were told there would be fighting,” he said. “But when we got here it was looting, robbery, attacks on women.”
“This war was not necessary,” he added. “Mistakes have been made.”
Driving off, we came across a figure sprawled on the roadside — an Ethiopian, stripped of his uniform, with several bullet wounds to his leg. He groaned softly.
The wounded soldier appeared to have been dumped there, although it wasn’t clear by whom. We drove him back to the prisoner camp, where Ethiopian medics did some basic treatment on the ground outside a school. Nobody was sure if he would survive.
Artillery boomed in the distance. The Tigrayan offensive was continuing to the north, using captured heavy guns against the Ethiopian troops who had brought them in. A platoon of fighters walked through, bearing a wounded man on a stretcher. Teklay Tsegay, 20, watched them pass.
Before the war, Mr. Teklay was a mechanic in Adigrat, 70 miles north. Then, last February, Eritrean soldiers fired into his aunt’s house, killing her 5-year-old daughter, he said. The following day, Mr. Teklay slipped out of Adigrat to join the resistance.
“I never thought I would be a soldier,” he said. “But here I am.”
As Tigrayans quietly mustered a guerrilla army this year, they drew on their experience of fighting a brutal Marxist dictatorship in Ethiopia in the 1970s and 1980s, under the flag of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front.
Then, Tigrayan intellectuals used Marxist ideology to bind peasant fighters to their cause, much like the Viet Cong or rebels in Angola and Mozambique.
But this time, the Tigrayan fighters are largely educated and hail from the towns and cities. And it is anger at atrocities, not Marxism, that drew them to the cause.
At the recruitment camp, instructors standing under trees gave speeches about Tigrayan culture and identity, and taught new recruits to fire an AK-47.
The wave of recruits has included doctors, university professors, white-collar professionals and diaspora Tigrayans from the United States and Europe, colleagues and friends said. Even in government-held Mekelle, recruitment grew increasingly brazen.
Two weeks ago, a T.D.F. poster appeared on a wall beside St. Gabriel’s, the city’s largest church. “Those who fail to join are as good as the walking dead,” it read. Hours later, Ethiopian soldiers arrived and tore it down.
Mulugeta Gebrehiwot Berhe, 61, a senior fellow at the World Peace Foundation at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, in Massachusetts, was visiting Mekelle when war erupted in November. I found him near the town of Samre, a leather-holstered pistol on his hip.
“I joined the resistance,” said the academic, who once helped broker a peace deal for the United Nations in Darfur. “I felt I had no other option.”
Even some Ethiopian commanders felt alienated by Mr. Abiy’s approach to the conflict.
Until late June, Col. Hussein Mohamed, a tall man with a gold-tooth smile, commanded the 11th Infantry Division in Tigray. Now he was a prisoner, held with other Ethiopian officers in a closely guarded farmhouse.
Of the 3,700 troops under his command, at least half were probably dead, said Colonel Hussein, confirming that he was speaking voluntarily. “The course of this war is political madness, to my mind,” he said.
He always had serious reservations about Mr. Abiy’s military alliance with Eritrea, Ethiopia’s old foe, he said: “They ransack properties, they rape women, they commit atrocities. The whole army is unhappy about this marriage.”
Still, Ethiopian soldiers have been accused of much the same crimes. I met Colonel Hussein in a stone-walled room, with a tin roof, as rain splattered outside. When the room’s owner, Tsehaye Berhe, arrived with a tray of coffee cups, her face clouded over.
“Take it!” she snapped at the Ethiopian officer. “I’m not serving you.”
Moments later Ms. Tsehaye returned to apologize. “I’m sorry for being emotional,” she said. “But your soldiers burned my house and stole my crops.”
Colonel Hussein nodded quietly.
Even before Ethiopian forces abandoned Mekelle on June 28, there were hints that something was afoot. The internet went down, and at the regional headquarters where Mr. Abiy had installed an interim government, I found deserted corridors and locked offices. Outside, federal police officers were slinging backpacks into a bus.
Smoke rose from the Ethiopian National Defense Forces’ headquarters in Mekelle — a pyre of burning documents, it turned out, piled high by detainees accused of supporting the T.D.F.
Weeks earlier, Ethiopian intelligence officers had tortured one of them, Yohannes Haftom, with a cattle prod. “We will burn you,” Mr. Yohannes recalled them saying. “We will bury you alive.”
But after he followed their orders to cart their confidential documents to the burn pit on June 28, the Ethiopians set Mr. Yohannes free. Hours later, the first T.D.F. fighters entered Mekelle, setting off days of raucous celebration.
Residents filled streets where young fighters paraded on vehicles like beauty queens, or leaned from speeding tuktuks spraying gunfire into the air. Nightclubs and cafes filled up, and an older woman prostrated herself at the feet of a just-arrived fighter, shouting thanks to God.
On the fourth day, fighters paraded thousands of Ethiopian prisoners through the city center, in a show of triumphalism that was a pointed rebuke to the leader of Ethiopia. “Abiy is a thief!” people chanted as dejected soldiers marched past.
The celebrations eventually reached the house where Mr. Getachew, the Tigrayan leader and T.D.F. spokesman, now descended from his mountain base, was staying.
As the whiskey flowed, Mr. Getachew juggled calls on his satellite phone while a generator rattled in the background. Mr. Abiy had once been his political ally, even his friend, he said. Now the Ethiopian leader had cut the power and phone lines to Mekelle and issued a warrant for his arrest.
Buoyed by victory, the guests excitedly discussed the next phase of their war in Tigray. One produced a cake with the Tigrayan flag that Mr. Getachew, sharing a knife with a senior commander, cut to loud cheers.
For much of his career, he had been a staunch defender of the Ethiopian state. But the war made that position untenable, he said. Now he was planning a referendum on Tigrayan independence.
“Nothing can save the Ethiopian state as we know it, except a miracle,” he said. “And I don’t usually believe in them.”
GIJET, Ethiopia — The convoy sped down from the mountain, slipping and sliding on roads greasy from a recent shower of hailstones. As it descended toward the regional capital of Tigray, curling through rocky hills and remote hamlets, people clustered along the route in celebration.
Women stood ululating outside stone farmhouses, and fighters perched atop a ridge fired their weapons into the air as the vehicles curled around the detritus of battle: burned-out tanks, overturned trucks and a mucky field where on June 23 an Ethiopian military cargo plane, shot down by the Tigrayans, had smashed into the ground.
The leader of Tigray, Debretsion Gebremichael, was going home.
Two days earlier, his scrappy guerrilla force had retaken the regional capital, Mekelle, hours after Ethiopian troops suddenly abandoned the city. Now Mr. Debretsion, a former deputy prime minister of Ethiopia, was leaving the mountains where he had been ensconced for eight months leading a war to re-establish his rule over the region.
“I didn’t expect to make it back alive,” Mr. Debretsion said on Thursday night in an interview, his first since the fall of Mekelle. “But this isn’t personal. The most important thing is that my people are free — free from the invaders. They were living in hell, and now they can breathe again.”
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered a military operation there. The civil war has led to the displacement of nearly two million people, and to widespread hunger and reports that civilians were subjected to atrocities and sexual violence.
Mr. Debretsion, who is believed to be in his late 50s, claimed to have crippled Ethiopia’s powerful army, defeating seven of its 12 divisions and killing at least 18,000 soldiers. He also detailed plans to expand the war across Tigray, in defiance of international calls for a cease-fire, until his fighters have expelled from the region every outside force, including Eritrean soldiers and ethnic Amhara militias.
“They have taken the land by force,” Mr. Debretsion said. “So we will take it back by force.”
Tigray Defense Forces mounted a spectacle that seemed intended to humiliate Ethiopia’s leader. The fighters marched at least 6,000 Ethiopian prisoners of war through downtown Mekelle past residents chanting, “Abiy is a thief!” A woman holding a large photograph of Mr. Debretsion led the procession.
The Tigrayan leader fought his first war in the 1980s as the head of a guerrilla radio station for the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, a rebel group leading the resistance against a brutal Marxist dictatorship in Ethiopia.
The rebels swept to power in 1991, with the Tigrayan leadership at the head of a governing coalition that dominated Ethiopia for nearly three decades until Mr. Abiy became prime minister in 2018.
In power, the Tigrayan leadership stabilized Ethiopia and achieved soaring economic growth for nearly a decade. But progress came at the cost of basic civil rights. Critics were imprisoned or exiled, torture was commonplace in detention centers and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front won successive elections with a reported 100 percent of the vote.
By then, Mr. Debretsion had a reputation as a low-key technocrat. He served as communications minister and headed Ethiopia’s power utility, where he oversaw construction of a $4.5 million hydroelectric dam that, when completed, will be Africa’s largest.
But as popular protests against the Tigrayan leadership’s rule roiled Ethiopia from 2015, and as the police killed hundreds of protesters, Mr. Debretsion rose in prominence inside the party. Analysts say he was seen as a younger and more moderate figure than those steeped in Tigrayan nationalism who had dominated the party for decades.
The eruption of war changed everything.
Mr. Abiy said he had no choice but to launch military action, after months of escalating political tensions, when Tigrayan forces attacked a military base on Nov. 4.
Mr. Debretsion challenged that account, saying that Ethiopian troops had been massing on Tigray’s borders for days in preparation for an assault. He had advance knowledge of those plans, Mr. Debretsion said, because ethnic Tigrayans accounted for more than 40 percent of senior Ethiopian military officers, and many defected in the early days of the fight.
At first, Tigrayan forces were caught off guard by a barrage of drone strikes against artillery and supply lines that he said were conducted by the United Arab Emirates, an ally of both Mr. Abiy and the leader of Eritrea, Isaias Afwerki.
An Emirates spokesman did not respond to questions about the alleged drone strikes. Mr. Debretsion said they had changed the course of the war.
“Without the drones,” he said, “the fight would have been different.”
The Tigrayans, buoyed by a huge influx of new recruits, mounted their dramatic comeback just before Ethiopia’s election on June 21.
With the vote canceled in Tigray, Ethiopian forces attacked the T.D.F. at its stronghold in the Tembien mountains, west of Mekelle. The Tigrayans struck back hard, and within days several Ethiopian bases had been overrun and thousands of Ethiopian soldiers were captured.
Mr. Debretsion said he would free most of the Ethiopian prisoners who were marched through Mekelle on Friday, but would continue to detain the Ethiopian officers.
He called on the international community to ensure accountability for the spree of atrocities reportedly committed in Tigray in recent months — massacres, rape, the use of starvation as a weapon of war. Some Tigrayans had also been accused of atrocities during the conflict. But Mr. Debretsion rejected a United Nations-led investigation that is being conducted alongside a rights body linked to the Ethiopian government.
“It’s very clear they are partial,” he said.
He warned that if Mr. Abiy tried to mass forces in regions bordering Tigray again, he would quickly send fighters to intercept them.
In recent days, some Tigrayan leaders have suggested that troops could march on Asmara, Eritrea’s capital, to oust Mr. Afwerki, who harbors a decades-old enmity with them.
Mr. Debretsion sounded a more cautious note. Tigrayan troops would fight to push Eritrean troops over the border, he said, but not necessarily go farther.
“We have to be realistic,” Mr. Debretsion said. “Yes, we would like to remove Isaias. But at the end of the day, Eritreans have to remove him.”
The euphoric mood that gripped Mekelle this past week, with some fighters rushing to be with families and others celebrating in the city’s restaurants and nightclubs, is also a challenge for Mr. Debretsion.
The mood might be deflated in the coming weeks, as shortages of food and fuel hit Mekelle, now isolated on all sides.
Aid groups say that more vulnerable Tigrayans may starve if Mr. Abiy’s government does not allow vital aid deliveries.
Even if the conflict ends soon, Mr. Debretsion said, Tigray’s future as part of Ethiopia is in doubt.“The trust has broken completely,” he said. “If they don’t want us, why should we stay?”
Still, he added, nothing has been decided: “It depends on the politics at the center.”
Famine is now knocking on the door of Ethiopia’s Tigray region, where a civil war that erupted last year has drastically cut the food supply and prevented relief workers from helping the hungry, the top U.N. humanitarian official has warned.
In a confidential note to the United Nations Security Council, the official, Mark Lowcock, the under secretary general for humanitarian affairs, said sections of Tigray, a region of more than 5 million people, are now one step from famine — in part because the government has obstructed aid shipments.
The note, seen by The New York Times, was submitted Tuesday under a Security Council resolution requiring such notification when conflicts cause famine and widespread food insecurity.
“These circumstances now arise in the Tigray region of Northern Ethiopia,” Mr. Lowcock said in the note. While below-average rain, locusts and the Covid-19 pandemic have all contributed to food scarcity, he said, “the scale of the food crisis Tigray faces today is a clear result of the conflict and the behavior of the parties.”
since last November. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and neighboring Eritrea ordered their military forces into the region to crush Mr. Abiy’s political rivals and strengthen his control.
What Mr. Abiy, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, predicted would be a short operation has instead become a quagmire that threatens to destabilize the Horn of Africa. Ethiopian and Eritrean troops have been accused of ethnic cleansing, massacres and others atrocities in Tigray that amount to war crimes.
While the United Nations and international relief organizations have achieved some cooperation from the Ethiopian authorities in gaining access to deprived areas of Tigray, Mr. Lowcock said in his note, such cooperation has deteriorated in recent months. “Humanitarian operations are being attacked, obstructed or delayed in delivering lifesaving assistance,” he wrote, and at least eight aid workers have been killed.
“As a result of impediments and the effect of restrictions, not nearly enough support is being provided,” he wrote. He urged Security Council members “to take any steps possible to prevent a famine from occurring.”
His warning was echoed by Samantha Power, the administrator of the United States Agency for International Development, the main U.S. government provider of humanitarian assistance to needy countries. Ms. Power, a former American ambassador to the United Nations, said in a statement that one of the aid workers killed had worked for the agency she now runs.
took the unusual step of penalizing Ethiopia over growing American exasperation with Mr. Abiy’s actions in Tigray. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken announced visa restrictions on officials linked to the conflict, preventing their travel to the United States.
Ethiopia’s Foreign Ministry reacted angrily, calling the restrictions “extremely regrettable” and suggesting they would “seriously undermine this longstanding and important bilateral relationship.”
NAIROBI, Kenya — Growing American frustration over the war in the Tigray region of Ethiopia spilled over into an open confrontation on Monday when Ethiopian officials lashed out at Washington over new restrictions including aid cuts and a ban on some Ethiopians traveling to the United States.
The restrictions, announced by Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken on Sunday, amount to an unusual step against a key African ally, and a pointed rebuke to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, a Nobel Peace Prize winner whose troops and allies have been accused of ethnic cleansing, massacres and others atrocities that could amount to war crimes.
Despite “significant diplomatic engagement,” Mr. Blinken said in a statement, “the parties to the conflict in Tigray have taken no meaningful steps to end hostilities or pursue a peaceful resolution of the political crisis.”
American visa restrictions will apply to all actors in the Tigray conflict, Mr. Blinken said, including current and former Ethiopian and Eritrean officials, ethnic Amhara militias and Tigrayan rebels.
a statement on Monday, Ethiopia’s foreign affairs ministry reacted with an expression of regret and what appeared to be thinly veiled threats. It accused the United States of meddling in its internal affairs and trying to overshadow national elections scheduled for June 21.
And it said that Ethiopia could be “forced to reassess its relations with the United States, which might have implications beyond our bilateral relationship.”
gave $923 million, according to USAID, although the vast majority of that money was for humanitarian purposes — health care, food aid, education and democracy support — that will not be hit by the new measures.
The United States had already suspended $23 million in security aid to Ethiopia. Officials say the new measures will preclude any American arms sales to Ethiopia, although much of the country’s weapons come from Russia.
Still, there could be other impacts. Western diplomats say the United States could block international funding to Ethiopia from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund — integral to Mr. Abiy’s economic plans.
dispatched by President Biden in March, and Jeffrey Feltman, the recently appointed Horn of Africa envoy.
American officials worry that the growing chaos in Tigray could destabilize the entire Horn of Africa region, or jeopardize efforts to mediate a high-stakes dispute with Egypt over the massive hydroelectric dam that Ethiopia is building on the Nile.
The growing humanitarian crisis, including the threat of a famine within months, is also driving the sense of urgency.
Those responsible for the Tigray crisis “should anticipate further actions from the United States and the international community,” Mr. Blinken said. “We call on other governments to join is taking these measures.”
NAIROBI, Kenya — Gunfire erupted across the Somali capital, Mogadishu, on Sunday as security forces loyal to the president clashed with units that appeared to have sided with his rivals, stoking fears that Somalia’s simmering political crisis is spilling over into violence.
The fighting, some of the worst in the Somali capital for years, followed months of tense talks between President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed and opponents who accuse him of making an unconstitutional power grab.
The talks collapsed after Mr. Mohamed failed to hold presidential and parliamentary elections by February, as scheduled, and then two months later signed a law extending his term in office by two years. His actions have drawn criticism from the United States and other Western allies.
The moves effectively ended United Nations-mediated negotiations backed by the United States and added fuel to an already combustible political situation.
appealed on Twitter for “maximum restraint” on all sides. “Violence is unacceptable,” he said. “Those responsible will be held accountable.”
The fighting also raised the possibility of dangerous fissures along clan lines inside the Somali military, and the worry that powerful foreign-trained units, including an elite American-funded commando squad, could get sucked in.
posted online by Somali reporters and news outlets Sunday night depicted long bursts of gunfire around Kilometer 4, a major junction in the city. Some of fighting occurred near Villa Somalia, as the presidential palace is known.
Foreigners living in the highly protected zone around Mogadishu’s international airport said they had retreated into bunkers to avoid being hit by stray gunfire.
The main clashes occurred outside the homes of Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, a former president of Somalia, and Abdirahman Abdishakur Warsame, the leader of a major opposition party. In statements, both men laid blame for the attacks on President Mohamed, who is popularly known by the nickname “Formaajo.”
At a hastily convened news conference, Hassan Hundubey Jimale, Somalia’s minister of internal security, denied that the government had attacked the former president’s home and blamed unspecified foreign countries for the clashes.
Mr. Jimale gave no details about how many people had been killed or injured.
Critics said Mr. Mohamed was making a high-stakes bid to stay in power.
“It seems Formaajo has decided his final suicidal attack by attacking every opposition figure in town,” said Hussein Sheikh Ali, a former national security adviser who once worked under Mr. Mohamed.
silenced critics, expelled the top U.N. official and, last year, dragged its feet over scheduled elections.
The opposition has refused to recognize Mr. Mohamed’s authority since his four-year term expired on Feb. 8 without planned presidential and parliamentary elections taking place.
Talks between the two sides over the terms of any elections have been deadlocked since the fall. Opponents accused Mr. Mohamed and his powerful spy chief, Fahad Yasin, of attempting to rig the system by stuffing regional electoral boards with their supporters.
Mr. Mohamed claimed his enemies were trying to shy away from an election, and now says he needs two years to bring forward plans for universal suffrage in Somalia. Under the current system, the president is chosen through an indirect, clan-based vote.
Mr. Mohamed’s move to extend his term by two years on April 14, which some analysts called a “constitutional coup,” met with fierce criticism from the United States and other Western allies.
In Mogadishu, the move caused some opposition leaders to retreat into their clan strongholds.
Among those embroiled in the fighting on Sunday was Sadek John, a former police chief of Mogadishu who was dismissed in mid-April after he opposed Mr. Mohamed, according to a Somali police official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the press.
Declan Walsh reported from Nairobi, Kenya and Hussein Mohamed from Mogadishu, Somalia.
NAIROBI, Kenya — Eritrean troops continue to commit atrocities in the northern Ethiopian region of Tigray, despite assurances by Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, that they were leaving, a senior United Nations official said Thursday.
Mr. Abiy has come under pressure over reports of massacres, looting and sexual assaults by Eritrean troops. Last month, he flew to the Eritrean capital, Asmara, and announced that his ally, the autocratic Eritrean leader Isaias Afwerki, had agreed to bring his soldiers home.
But the U.N. and its humanitarian partners have seen no evidence that such a withdrawal has taken place, Mark Lowcock, the top U.N. humanitarian official, told the Security Council. In fact, Mr. Lowcock said, Eritrean soldiers had begun to disguise their identities by wearing Ethiopian military uniforms, and some had killed civilians during indiscriminate attacks as recently as Monday.
The Times obtained a transcript of Mr. Lowcock’s remarks, which were made in a private briefing. They paint a grim picture of the violence in Tigray, where a clash between Mr. Abiy and regional leaders in November has degenerated into a chaotic and pitiless conflict that threatens to destabilize the entire Horn of Africa region.
“ethnic cleansing” earlier this month by the United States Secretary of State, Antony J. Blinken.
Hunger is spreading with up to 150 people starving to death recently in one district south of the Tigrayan capital, Mekelle, Mr. Lowcock told the Security Council.
involve sexual violence, the majority by men in uniform, he said. Girls as young as eight have been targeted.
In one instance, Mr. Lowcock said, Eritrean soldiers gang raped a woman in front of her children, days after her husband had been killed and she had lost a newborn baby.
said in a statement. “The U.N.’s most powerful body needs to end its paralysis.”
Rick Gladstone contributed reporting from New York.
NAIROBI, Kenya — In a highly contentious move, Somalia’s president has extended his own term in office by two years, drawing condemnation from the United States and other allies who viewed the move as a naked power grab and feared it could upend faltering efforts to establish a functioning state and defeat the insurgency by the extremist group Al Shabab.
President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, a one-time American citizen popularly known as Farmaajo, announced that he signed the law extending his mandate early Wednesday, two days after it was approved by a majority of Somalia’s Parliament amid accusations that the president’s office had engineered the vote.
The move represented a worst-case scenario for United Nations and Western officials, who had been shuttling for months between Mr. Mohamed and Somali regional leaders locked in a bitter dispute over when and how to hold parliamentary and presidential elections that were scheduled to take place by early February.
The United States, which has given billions of dollars in aid to Somalia and conducted numerous airstrikes and military raids against Al Shabab, had privately threatened Mr. Mohamed and his top officials with sanctions and visa restrictions if he disregarded the election time table.
according to Somali investigators, was influenced by at least $20 million in bribes.
But critics say that Mr. Mohamed is now using the one-person, one-vote goal as an excuse to delay elections that he risks losing, and that he is taking his cues from Mr. Afwerki.