Ethiopia’s prime minister on Friday defended military operations against the country’s well-armed Tigray region after accusing its government of a deadly attack on a military base this week.

Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed attends a signing ceremony with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, December 7, 2019.
Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed attends a signing ceremony with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, December 7, 2019. (Reuters)

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has said military operations in the northern region of Tigray has limited objectives, as calls have risen for the country to step back from what could be a devastating war.

A long-running feud erupted into armed conflict this week between Addis Ababa and Tigray, whose leaders effectively ruled the country for three decades until Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power.

UN chief Antonio Guterres on Friday called for the immediate de-escalation of tensions amid reports of heavy shelling and troop movements, while observers warned that an all-out war between the two powerful armies could be long and bloody.

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Abiy, the winner of last year's Nobel Peace Prize, announced on Wednesday he had ordered military operations in Tigray in response to an "attack" on a military camp by the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF).

The TPLF denies the attack occurred and accuses Abiy of concocting the story to justify deploying the military against it.

Abiy wrote on Twitter Friday that the military operations "have clear, limited and achievable objectives — to restore the rule of law and the constitutional order, and to safeguard the rights of Ethiopians to lead a peaceful life wherever they are in the country."

'Shameful, senseless' 

His comments come after the military said on Wednesday the country has "entered into a war it didn't anticipate" with the TPLF.

"This war is shameful, it is senseless," Ethiopia's deputy army chief, Berhanu Jula, said on Thursday.

Abiy appeared to be seeking to play down the bellicose rhetoric, and responded to growing international calls for dialogue.

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

He said the government "patiently tried for several months to resolve differences with TPLF leadership peacefully; we tried mediation, reconciliation, dialogue."

"All failed (because) of TPLF criminal hubris and intransigence. In the last straw TPLF attacked the Northern Command based in Tigray."

'Deeply alarmed' 

In a statement on Twitter, Guterres called for "an immediate de-escalation of tensions and a peaceful resolution to the dispute."

"I'm deeply alarmed over the situation in the Tigray region of Ethiopia. The stability of Ethiopia is important for the entire Horn of Africa region," he wrote.

Ethiopia's Foreign Ministry spokesperson Dina Mufti said the government had explained to the diplomatic community that it "was provoked" into the current situation.

"Their reaction overall is that they want Ethiopia’s peace, stability and want this issue to be solved quickly. More or less we can say they expressed sympathy to our position."

Tigray President Debretsion Gebremichael said on Thursday that fighting was taking place in western Tigray, and that federal troops were gathering on the border in neighbouring Amhara and Afar regions.

A diplomatic source said there were probably casualties on both sides after heavy fighting and artillery shelling on Thursday on one of the main roads linking Tigray to Amhara.

An aid worker, speaking on condition of anonymity, said 25 wounded soldiers had been admitted to an Amhara health centre on Thursday, without specifying which side they were from.

Internet and phone connections in Tigray have been cut, making any tolls difficult to verify.

'Lengthy and bloody' 

The International Crisis Group warned that unless the fighting was urgently halted, the conflict "will be devastating not just for the country but for the entire Horn of Africa."

It said that prolonged fighting could draw in neighbouring Eritrea, whose President Isaias Afwerki is close to Abiy and who is a "sworn enemy" of the TPLF, which ruled Ethiopia when it fought a war with Eritrea.

And given Tigray has powerful military forces, with an estimated 250,000 troops, a war could be "lengthy and bloody" in Africa's second-most populous country, it said.

It could also further destabilise the diverse nation, split into ethnic-based federal states, which has seen multiple outbreaks of ethnic violence in recent years.

"Immediate, concerted mediation — local, regional and international — is needed to avert a descent into a broader crisis," the ICG 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, Tigrayan leaders have complained of being unfairly targeted in corruption prosecutions, removed from top positions and broadly scapegoated for the country's woes.

The ICG said the descent into conflict was "sudden but predictable" after weeks of hostilities.

Tensions escalated when Tigray held its own elections in September, after Addis Ababa decided to postpone national polls due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Both sides then refused to recognise the rule of the other, and warlike rhetoric stepped up, with Tigray's president on Monday telling the region to prepare for war, prompting the federal parliament to seek to have the TPLF declared a terrorist group.

Addis Ababa has imposed a six-month state of emergency on Tigray.

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Source: AFP