Northern Ethiopia has been wracked by conflict since November last year

Addis Ababa (AFP) - International alarm mounted on Tuesday over the escalating war in Ethiopia as Tigrayan rebels claimed to be edging closer to the capital Addis Ababa and more foreign citizens were told to leave.

US envoy Jeffrey Feltman spoke of some progress in efforts to reach a diplomatic settlement to end the brutal year-long conflict, but warned it risked being jeopardised by “alarming developments” on the ground.

France became the latest country to tell its citizens to get out of Ethiopia, while the United Nations has ordered the immediate evacuation of family members of international staff, according to an internal document seen by AFP on Tuesday.

The rebel Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) claimed this week it had taken a town just 220 kilometres (135 miles) from the capital, although battlefield claims are hard to verify because of a communications blackout.

On Monday, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed on Monday vowed he would head to the battlefront to lead his soldiers in what the government has described as an “existential war” in Africa’s second most populous nation.

“We are now in the final stages of saving Ethiopia,” said Abiy, who only two years ago was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for securing a peace deal with neighbouring Eritrea.

The latest developments cast doubt on hopes of a peaceful solution to the conflict, despite frantic diplomatic efforts led by the African Union to secure a ceasefire.

- ‘Military escalation’ -

Thousands of people have been killed since the fighting erupted in northern Ethiopia in November 2020, triggering a deep humanitarian crisis that the UN says has left hundreds of thousands on the brink of famine and displaced more than two million.

“While there’s some nascent progress, that is highly at risk of being outpaced by the military escalation on the two sides,” Feltman, special envoy for the Horn of Africa, told reporters in Washington after returning from a mission to Addis Ababa.

Map of Ethiopia locating northern regions Amhara, Tigray and Afar, and Debre Sina

A scramble to evacuate foreigners was continuing, three weeks after the government declared a state of emergency.

An internal UN security order seen by AFP said that “eligible family members of internationally recruited staff” should be evacuated by November 25.

France also advised its citizens in an email to leave “without delay”, following similar advisories by the US and the UK in recent weeks.

But officials in the capital said at a briefing to diplomats that security forces, including youth groups, were working to ensure the city’s safety.

“The propaganda and terror talk being disseminated by the Western media fully contradicts the peaceful state of the city on the ground, so the diplomatic community shouldn’t feel any worry or fear,” said Kenea Yadeta, head of the Addis Ababa Peace and Security Bureau.

The conflict erupted when Abiy sent troops into the northern Tigray region to topple TPLF after months of seething tensions with the party which had dominated national politics for three decades before he took power in 2018.

Abiy said the move was in response to TPLF attacks on federal army camps and promised a swift victory, but by late June the rebels had retaken most of Tigray including its capital Mekele.

Security officials told diplomats in Addis Ababa not to worry

Since then the TPLF has pushed into the neighbouring Afar and Amhara regions and earlier this week claimed control of Shewa Robit, just 220 kilometres northeast of Addis Ababa by road.

The government has not responded to requests about the status of the town.

Some TPLF fighters were also believed to have reached Debre Sina, about 30 kilometres closer to Addis Ababa, diplomats briefed on the security situation said.

- ‘Rise up for your country’ -

In Pretoria, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa and his Kenyan counterpart Uhuru Kenyatta added their voices to calls for the two sides to commit to an immediate ceasefire.

But Abiy himself has cast doubts on the prospects for a peaceful solution.

“Starting tomorrow, I will mobilise to the front to lead the defence forces,” he said in a statement Monday.

“Those who want to be among the Ethiopian children who will be hailed by history, rise up for your country today. Let’s meet at the front.”

Meanwhile, the United Nations on Tuesday launched a major drive to deliver food aid to two towns in northern Ethiopia despite the looting of warehouses.

The UN’s World Food Programme said the “major food assistance operation” would serve more than 450,000 people over the next two weeks in the Amhara towns of Kombolcha and Dessie which lie at a strategic crossroads on the main highway to Addis Ababa.