Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed replaced his army chief on Sunday, as reports of wounded soldiers continued to rise in a five-day-old conflict in the country’s northern Tigray region.
Deputy army chief Berhanu Jula will take over the Ethiopian National Defence Force, a statement from Abiy’s office said, without giving a reason or specifying the fate of Berhanu’s predecessor, General Adem Mohammed.
The announcement came as a medical official told AFP that nearly 100 government soldiers had been treated for gunshot wounds at a hospital in the northern Amhara region, the latest indication that fighting has been intense.
Abiy and military leaders have touted Ethiopian soldiers’ successes against forces loyal to the Tigray ruling party, but a communications blackout in the region has made their accounts difficult to verify.
On roads in the northern part of Ethiopia’s Amhara region, ambulances can frequently be seen ferrying wounded combatants to hospitals.
In the town of Sanja, 98 government soldiers have been treated for “gunfire” injuries, a doctor told AFP.
“We have had 98 cases. All of them are soldiers from the national army,” said the doctor, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
He said there were no fatalities at the hospital, but noted more serious cases have been transported to larger hospitals in the city of Gondar and elsewhere.
Reports of dead and wounded soldiers have mounted in recent days in Amhara, where a humanitarian aid worker said three died and 35 were treated on Saturday. On Friday 105 were reported injured and five killed in the region.
They coincide with growing fears of civil war after Abiy, last year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, on Wednesday sent federal troops and aircraft into Tigray in a major escalation of a long-running feud.
Sunday’s reshuffle also saw new appointments for deputy army chief, foreign minister and federal police commissioner, while the president of Amhara was transferred to head Ethiopia’s intelligence service.
No reason was given for those changes either.
Abiy ordered airstrikes on military assets in the Tigrayan regional capital, Mekele, last week, while warning more would be on the way and urging civilians to avoid gatherings to limit “collateral damage.”
A UN advisory distributed Sunday morning reported an “ongoing air strike in Mekele” close to the airport, with an update specifying “there was only one strike heard and the related ripost [sic] from the ground.”
Hours before he was named the new army chief, a state media report quoted Berhanu saying federal forces had “fully destroyed the heavy weaponries of the traitorous clique”, a reference to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the regional ruling party.
Berhanu also said federal forces had “completely captured” four towns in western Tigray, where much of the fighting has reportedly been concentrated.
But a UN source told AFP Saturday that an internal security report said Tigrayan forces held Ethiopia’s Northern Command headquarters in Mekele.
The key base is one of the most heavily armoured in the country, a legacy of Ethiopia’s war with neighbouring Eritrea which borders the Tigray region.
A UN report dated Saturday called on “all warring parties, at all levels, to grant uninterrupted humanitarian access to [the] affected population” in Tigray, warning that conflict-related disruptions were “contributing to the worsening of the humanitarian context”.
It noted that the region houses 100,000 displaced Ethiopians, nearly 100,000 refugees and “approximately 600,000 people dependent on food relief assistance”.
All told nearly nine million people near Tigray’s borders are “at high risk due to this conflict”, the report said, raising the possibility of “massive displacements within and outside of Ethiopia.”
Lawmakers on Saturday voted to suspend Tigray’s current leaders and install a caretaker administration.
In the capital, Addis Ababa, the mayor announced Sunday that 10 TPLF members who were high-ranking city officials had been arrested, accusing them of “betraying the people” and working “to destabilise the peace in our city and engage in cruel and terroristic motives.”
The mayor, Adenech Abebe, said city officials were also investigating “other tipoffs”, praising city residents for being “our eyes and ears.”
Yet in a Twitter post Sunday, Abiy called on Ethiopians to avoid discriminating against Tigrayans, who make up roughly six per cent of the country’s 110 million people.
“I would like to reiterate that no Tigrayan brother or sister should be a victim of identity-based illegal acts, and this responsibility lies on all Ethiopians,” Abiy said.
The TPLF dominated politics in Ethiopia for nearly three decades before Abiy came to power in 2018 on the back of anti-government protests.
Under Abiy, Tigray’s leaders have complained of being unfairly targeted in corruption prosecutions, removed from top positions and broadly scapegoated for the country’s woes.
The long-running feud became more intense after Tigray held its own elections in September, defying Abiy’s government which had decided to postpone national polls due to the coronavirus pandemic.