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World

Ousted Tigray leader breaks long silence, media outlet claims

  • Abiy declared victory in late November when federal forces took the Tigray capital Mekele, but Debretsion, president of Tigray when the fighting started, has remained on the run.
Published January 31, 2021

ADDIS ABABA: A Tigrayan media outlet has released a recording of what it said is the ousted leader of Ethiopia's conflict-hit region, in which he issues a fresh call to arms in what would be his first public statement in nearly two months.

AFP could not independently verify the authenticity of the audio statement from Debretsion Gebremichael which aired Saturday night via US-based Tigrai Media House.

In November Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered military operations targeting leaders of the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), the regional ruling party, a move he said came in response to TPLF-orchestrated attacks on federal army camps.

Abiy, winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, declared victory in late November when federal forces took the Tigray capital Mekele, but Debretsion, president of Tigray when the fighting started, has remained on the run.

In the Tigrai Media House recording of around 20 minutes, Debretsion said he was speaking "from Tigrayan land" where "core resistance against invasion is taking place".

"I call upon you, wherever you are... to organise and fight and to strive to make all who have reached fighting age take up the fight, and through this to shorten the lifespan of the enemy," Debretsion said.

TPLF leaders were not immediately available for comment, and it was not clear when the recording was made or from where Debretsion was speaking.

But Kjetil Tronvoll, an expert on the TPLF with deep contacts in the party, said he believed the recording was genuine.

"Though I have not spoken to [Debretsion] personally, he has spoken to other contacts of mine in recent days," said Tronvoll, of Bjorknes University College in Norway.

Thousands have died in the conflict in Tigray, according to the International Crisis Group, and tens of thousands of refugees have streamed across the border into Sudan.

A Mekele-based regional caretaker administration claims life is returning to normal.

Yet aid workers and some officials in Tigray have warned of a humanitarian disaster marked by widespread starvation.

Media access remains tightly restricted, complicating efforts to confirm conditions on the ground.

Abiy's government has dismissed the possibility of the TPLF regrouping to mount an insurgency within Tigray.

In the recording, Debretsion acknowledged federal forces' "temporary military dominance" but said this was because of an alliance with outside forces including Eritrean soldiers -- something the government denies despite abundant witness accounts to the contrary.

Debretsion also noted that some TPLF leaders "have paid and are continuing to pay the ultimate sacrifice."

The government has in recent weeks announced the deaths of prominent TPLF officials like Seyoum Mesfin, who served as Ethiopia's foreign minister for nearly two decades back when the TPLF dominated Ethiopian politics.

"The sacrifice of these heroes, however, will only make us more determined," Debretsion said.

"It will certainly not make us step back from the struggle."

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