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Correction: The intro for this piece referred to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed as Ethiopia's president. The transcript has been updated to reflect the correct title. We regret the error.
In Ethiopia, a civil war that’s been raging for more than a year seems to be entering a new phase. Rebel forces from the Tigray region are relinquishing areas seized from federal control. But the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed says it is skeptical of the rebels’ ultimate goals. As Ali Rogin reports, the conflict may be evolving, but peace remains elusive.
In Ethiopia, a civil war that's been raging for more than a year seems to be entering a new phase.
Rebel forces from the Tigray region are relinquishing areas seized from federal control, but the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed says it is skeptical of the rebels' ultimate goals. Tonight, the U.S. State Department is calling on all parties to cease hostilities.
As Ali Rogin reports, the conflict may be evolving, but peace remains elusive.
In this Tigray marketplace, the scars of Ethiopia's air war are everywhere. A Tigrayan channel shows survivors carrying away victims. The injured receive treatment. Officials show what they say is shrapnel.
Ekubay Gebremedhin, Head of Security, Alamata (through translator): Drones attacked the market and killed more than 38 people, and more than 80 people were injured.
Drones like this Turkish model are new to the Ethiopian conflict. They have given the upper hand to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's government and his allies over fighters loyal to the Tigray people's liberation front, or TPLF.
Johnnie Carson is a former assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of African Affairs. He's now an adviser to the United States Institute of Peace, a think tank founded by Congress.
Johnnie Carson, United States Institute of Peace: Up until three weeks ago, the TPLF Was making a concerted advance, moving southward towards the capital of Addis Ababa.
But in the last three weeks, the introduction of drones, drones supplied largely by the United Arab Emirates, Turkey and Iran, have given the Ethiopian military an advantage on the battlefield.
The crisis began more than a year ago, when Tigrayan forces who used to run the country attacked a federal outpost. Federal forces and their allies from neighboring Eritrea and the Amhara region waged a scorched earth campaign and occupied parts of Tigray.
But in late June, Tigrayan forces pushed federal Ethiopian soldiers out, and kept going, from Tigray into neighboring Amhara and Afar, and on toward the capital, Addis Ababa. But Abiy's forces pushed back. Bolstered by drones, they recaptured towns under Tigrayan control.
These images purportedly show Ethiopian military trucks in Amhara in early December, about a month after the Tigray incursion.
Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopian Prime Minister (through translator):
We said Ethiopia won't be defeated because we relied on you. Most of the areas in Amhara, as well as all of Afar, have been freed. We will continue the same with the remaining places.
Tigrayan forces now say they are in retreat. In a letter to the United Nations Sunday, TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael said he ordered an immediate withdrawal of troops outside Tigray's borders. He said he hoped it would be a decisive opening for peace.
But, so far, the Ethiopian government has rejected the overture.
Billene Seyoum, Ethiopian Government Spokesperson:
The current noise with regards to whether it's a strategic retreat or not will inevitably reveal itself.
Carson says he believes Abiy is more focused on a decisive military victory against the Tigrayans.
He regards the Tigrayans as terrorists, as individuals who have undermined the stability of the state. I think he probably — if he has the chance, he will seek to destroy them.
Meanwhile, civilians continue to suffer the most.
A November United Nations report detailed atrocities committed by all sides, including executions, violence against women and the destruction of property. And the international community accuses the Ethiopian government of a siege against Tigray. The U.N. says Tigray has received only 12 percent of needed humanitarian aid since July.
Last week, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights tasked a group of human rights experts to spend the next year investigating further.
Nada Al-Nashif, UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights: Our office continues to receive credible reports of severe human rights violations and abuses by all parties.
The Ethiopian government rejects the new probe.
Zenebe Kebede Korcho, UN Geneva Ambassador, Ethiopia:
My government will not cooperate with any mechanisms that may be imposed on it.
But Carson said now is the time for the international community to put more pressure on the Ethiopian government.
This is a critical moment in this process. And if there is any delay in moving forward, we could see greater violence, greater bloodshed, and a greater humanitarian problem emerge.
Now, with Tigrayan forces retreating and resetting in their home region, there's little to stop Abiy and his forces from following them.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Ali Rogin.
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Ali Rogin is a foreign affairs producer at the PBS NewsHour.
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