Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed rejects claims his country was on a path to all-out war, promising to end the offensive in the northern Tigray region, where security sources say hundreds have died in recent clashes.

PM Abiy Ahmed Ali, who comes from Ethiopia's largest ethnic group, the Oromo, has launched a military campaign in Tigray after forces loyal to Tigrayan leaders attacked a military base.
PM Abiy Ahmed Ali, who comes from Ethiopia's largest ethnic group, the Oromo, has launched a military campaign in Tigray after forces loyal to Tigrayan leaders attacked a military base. (Reuters)

Ethiopia's Nobel-winning leader has said his nation was not descending into "chaos" despite a military offensive against the restive Tigray region, where air strikes and fighting have reportedly killed hundreds of people in recent days.

A military official in Amhara told Reuters news agency on Monday that the clashes with Tigrayan forces in Kirakir, near the border between the regions of Tigray and Amhara, had killed nearly 500 Tigrayan forces.

"Concerns that Ethiopia will descend into chaos are unfounded and a result of not understanding our context deeply," Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed tweeted on Monday.

"Ethiopia is grateful for friends expressing their concern. Our rule of law operation is aimed at guaranteeing peace and stability once and for all by bringing perpetrators of instability to justice," he said.

The operation "will wrap up soon by ending the prevailing impunity."

Risk of civil war

The flare-up in the northern region bordering Eritrea and Sudan has brought fears of civil war in Africa's second-most populous nation where ethnic conflict has killed hundreds since Ahmed took over in 2018.

The 44-year-old, who is the continent's youngest leader, won the Nobel Peace Prize last year for democratic reforms following years of repressive government and for making peace with Eritrea after a border war that had killed tens of thousands.

But the conflict in Tigray threatens national stability.

Tigrayan leaders have sought the African Union's intervention.

READ MORE: What led to Abiy Ahmed’s military operation in Ethiopia's Tigray region?

Tigrayan forces attack military – Abiy

Last week Abiy, who comes from Ethiopia's largest ethnic group, the Oromo, launched a military campaign saying forces loyal to Tigrayan leaders had attacked a military base and attempted to steal equipment.

The Tigrayans account for just 5 percent of Ethiopians but had, before Abiy's rule, dominated politics since rebels from their ethnic group toppled Marxist military rule in 1991.

Federal government fighter jets have in recent days been bombing targets including arms depots in Tigray. 

Aid workers on Sunday reported heavy fighting between troops loyal to each side, with at least six dead and dozens wounded.

READ MORE: Is Ethiopia on the brink of civil war?

Possiblity of large-scale offensive

Forces of the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), which governs the region, are battle-hardened — from the 1998-2000 war with neighbouring Eritrea and from the guerrilla struggle to topple Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991.

They and militia allies number up to 250,000 men and possess significant stocks of military hardware, according to the International Crisis Group thinktank.

The Tigray leader in a letter to the African Union chair, seen by The Associated Press, has warned that Ethiopian forces are preparing to launch a large-scale offensive.

Tigrayans say Abiy's government has unfairly targeted them as part of a crackdown on past rights abuses and corruption.

"These fascist have demonstrated they will show no mercy in destroying Tigrayans by launching more than 10 air strike attempts in Tigrayan cities," the TPLF said on Facebook.

"The people and government of Tigray are standing together," it added in a post on Monday.

Abiy, a former soldier who fought alongside Tigrayans against Eritrea, has so far defied calls from the United Nations and others to negotiate.

READ MORE: Ethiopia's PM says air strikes carried out in Tigray region

Risks of military action

One risk is that Ethiopia's army could split along ethnic lines, with Tigrayans defecting to the regional force.

There are also fears of reprisals against Tigrayans elsewhere. 

Addis Ababa police said on Sunday the government had arrested 162 people in possession of firearms and ammunition, on suspicion of supporting the Tigrayan forces.

Furthermore, as Abiy's government mobilises troops to Tigray, other areas already roiled by ethnic violence could face a security vacuum, analysts say.

READ MORE: Ethiopian PM replaces army chief amid military conflict in Tigray

Source: TRTWorld and agencies