Ethiopia’s Leader Reshuffles Top Security Officials Amid Tigray Conflict

CAIRO — Ethiopia’s prime minister reshuffled his country’s security services on Sunday, days after he ordered a military offensive in the northern Tigray region, edging the country toward a potential all-out civil war.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed replaced the head of intelligence and the army chief, and appointed a new federal police commissioner. He also chose a new foreign minister.

The appointments were announced on Facebook, and a spokeswoman for the prime minister, Billene Seyoum, said they were “aimed at enabling the government to carry out the rule of law enforcement efforts started by strengthening the country’s security and foreign affairs.”

The moves put a multiethnic group of Mr. Abiy’s closest allies in crucial posts, observers said, strengthening his hand as he doubles down on a conflict that could endanger the country’s delicate democratic transition and lead to a divisive civil war.

“It’s a reshuffle aimed at better using the human resources at the top to withstand the security challenges,” said Yohannes Gedamu, a lecturer in political science at Georgia Gwinnett College, in Lawrenceville, Ga.

The shake-up comes five days after Mr. Abiy launched a military operation in the Tigray region after accusing its leaders of orchestrating an attack on a military base and attempting to steal artillery and military equipment. In the following days, Ethiopian fighter jets bombed targets in the restive region, with health workers reporting intense fighting, dozens of wounded and at least six dead.

Mr. Abiy, who won the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize for helping end a long war with neighboring Eritrea, has accused the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, or T.P.L.F., which governs the region, of undermining the constitution and federal laws.

The Tigray people make up 6 percent of Ethiopia’s estimated 110 million population. But for almost three decades, the group wielded outsized clout nationally, which withered away after anti-government protests that propelled Mr. Abiy to power.

The relationship between the regional and federal government has been strained since Mr. Abiy became prime minister in 2018, but it hit a new low after the Tigray region held parliamentary elections in September, in defiance of the Ethiopian government’s postponement of the vote nationally because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The decision to delay the voting had been criticized by many opposition groups, including the T.P.L.F., which said Mr. Abiy was using the pandemic to illegally extend his term in office.

In October, Ethiopia’s Parliament voted to slash the Tigray region’s funding, escalating the hostility between the two sides.

Mr. Abiy on Sunday doubled down on the military operation, arguing that his government was out to “defend and protect the constitutional order and uphold the rule of law.” He also accused the T.P.L.F. — without offering any evidence — of sponsoring and training anti-government militias throughout the country, including enlisting “underage recruits,” to destabilize the Horn of Africa nation.

“Their objective was clearly to make the country ungovernable by instigating clashes along ethnic and religious lines — to sow division and discord so that the democratic transition will lose its momentum,” Mr. Abiy said in a video statement.

The United Nations and other regional bodies have urged the warring parties to de-escalate the violence and find a peaceful resolution.

But Mr. Abiy has not heeded that yet, urging the international community on Sunday “to understand the context and the consistent transgressions by the T.P.L.F. clique that have led the Federal government to undertake this law enforcement operation.”

Diplomatic sources in Addis Ababa also said they expect the conflict to escalate in coming days as the government mobilized troops around the country and moved them closer to the Tigray region.

Adanech Abiebie, the mayor of the capital, Addis Ababa, confirmed in a series of tweets on Saturday that several T.P.L.F. members who worked in her administration had been arrested on what she said was suspicion of planning to disrupt the peace and engage in terrorist activities.

In order to wrest control of the restive region, Mr. Abiy’s government has blocked the internet and telephone networks in Tigray, declared a six-month state of emergency and approved the formation of a provisional regional administration. A state of emergency task force has also been established, with the power to impose curfews, make arrests and limit modes of transportation.

On Saturday, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs warned of the escalation of conflict in Tigray, saying the blockage of air and road access by the conflict was seriously affecting humanitarian relief to hundreds of thousands of people.

It also said close to 9 million people were at “high risk” of being affected by the escalation in military operation, which, it said, could potentially lead to “lead to massive displacements within and outside of Ethiopia.”

Sajjad Mohammad, the head of the U.N.’s humanitarian office in Ethiopia, said bread and fuel shortages were already emerging in the region.

“There are almost two million people who receive some kind of humanitarian aid in Tigray,” he said. “If supply lines close, that number could grow even further.”

Abdi Latif Dahir reported from Cairo and Simon Marks from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Tiksa Negeri contributed reporting from Gondar, Ethiopia.

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