NAIROBI, Kenya — The fugitive leader of Ethiopia’s defiant Tigray region on Monday called on Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to “stop the madness” and withdraw troops from the region as he asserted that fighting continues “on every front” two days after Abiy declared victory.
Debretsion Gebremichael, in a phone interview with The Associated Press, said he remained near the Tigray capital, Mekele, which the Ethiopian army on Saturday said it now controlled. Far from accepting Abiy’s declaration of victory, the Tigray leader asserted that “we are sure we’ll win.”
He also accused the Ethiopian forces of carrying out a “genocidal campaign” against the Tigray people. With the Tigray region still cut off a month after the fighting began, no one knows how many people have been killed, and it’s difficult to verify the warring sides’ claims.
Each government regards the other as illegal after Abiy sidelined the once-dominant Tigray People’s Liberation Front after taking office in early 2018.
The fight is about self-determination of the region of around 6 million people, the Tigray leader said, and it “will continue until the invaders are out.” He asserted that his forces held an undetermined number of “captives” among the Ethiopian forces, including the pilot of a fighter jet that his side claims to have shot down over the weekend.
Gebremichael again accused Abiy of collaborating with neighboring Eritrea in the offensive in Tigray, something the Ethiopian government has denied.
The fighting has threatened to destabilize Ethiopia, the linchpin of the strategic Horn of Africa, and its neighbors.
Abiy in remarks to lawmakers on Monday asserted that “the defense force has not killed a single person in any city. No nation’s military could have shown better competency than us.” But one of his Cabinet ministers, Zadig Abraha, told the AP on Saturday that “we have kept the civilian casualty very low.”
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke with Abiy on Monday — the first known time since the fighting began — and reiterated the “grave concern regarding ongoing hostilities and the risks the conflict poses,” a spokesman said. Pompeo also “called for a complete end to the fighting and constructive dialogue to resolve the crisis” and for humanitarian access and protection of civilians, including refugees.
Fears of a widespread humanitarian disaster are growing. The U.N. has been unable to access the Tigray region. Human rights groups and others worry about the atrocities that might emerge once transport and other links are restored.
Nearly 1 million people have been displaced, including about 44,000 who fled into Sudan. Camps in Tigray that are home to 96,000 Eritrean refugees have been in the line of fire.