Rockets target Eritrea capital after Ethiopia declares victory in Tigray



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Rockets launched from Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region targeted the capital of Eritrea several hours after Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed declared military operations in the region were over, diplomats told AFP on Sunday.

It remained impossible to independently verify whether the regional capital Mekele was completely under federal government control, though a military spokesman told AFP operations were proceeding “very well”. 

The US embassy in the Eritrean capital Asmara reported early Sunday “six explosions” had occurred in the city “at about 10:13 pm” Saturday.

Two Addis Ababa-based diplomats told AFP multiple rockets appeared to have targeted Asmara’s airport and military installations.

>> Tigray conflict threatens to ‘catalyse’ tensions elsewhere in Ethiopia

It marked the third time Asmara has come under fire from Tigray since Abiy ordered military operations against leaders of the region’s ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). 

The TPLF has claimed responsibility only for the first attack two weeks ago. 

It said Asmara was a legitimate target because Ethiopia was enlisting Eritrean military support for its campaign in Tigray, something Ethiopia denies.

As with the previous attacks it was unclear where the rockets landed and what damage they might have caused.

Eritrea is one of the world’s most secretive countries and the government has not commented on the strikes. 

Conflict ‘completed’

Abiy, last year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, announced November 4 he was sending federal troops into Tigray in response to attacks by pro-TPLF forces on federal army camps.

The move marked a dramatic escalation of tensions between Abiy and the TPLF, which dominated Ethiopian politics for nearly three decades before anti-government protests swept Abiy to office in 2018.

>> ‘A race against time’: Sudan struggles with refugee influx from Ethiopia’s Tigray

Thousands have died in the fighting and tens of thousands of refugees have streamed across the border into Sudan.

On Saturday night, Abiy declared military operations in Tigray “completed” after the army claimed control of the regional capital Mekele, a city of half a million before the conflict broke out.

Tigray has been under a communications blackout throughout the conflict and media access has been restricted making it impossible to verify Abiy’s claim.

Little news filtered out of the city Sunday even through official channels.

A military spokesman, Gen Mohamed Tessema, told AFP that operations were proceeding “very well” and that soldiers were “doing their work peacefully”, but said he could offer no details.

State television stuck to its usual Sunday programming of talk and music shows, while Tigray regional television did not appear to be broadcasting at all. 

The lack of clarity on the situation in Mekele did not preclude some small-scale celebrations Saturday night in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, and the city of Gondar, in the Amhara region south of Tigray.

“People were out celebrating all night. They fired their guns into the air until midnight and people were shouting, ‘We won!'” said Gondar resident Edom Asmare.

Amhara and Tigray have been embroiled in land disputes for decades, and Amhara special forces have played a central role in securing parts of Tigray that are now under federal control.

Next steps

The TPLF has considerable military assets, and at the outset of the conflict analysts estimated it could mobilise 200,000 troops.

After securing control of western Tigray and giving TPLF leaders a 72-hour ultimatum to surrender, Abiy announced Thursday he had ordered a “final offensive” on Mekele.

Global fears mounted over a bloodbath, and heavy shelling was reported in Mekele earlier on Saturday. 

But in the government’s telling, little fighting actually occurred, suggesting TPLF leaders opted to retreat.

Abiy said Saturday that police were working to apprehend the party leadership, who were not reachable Sunday, their whereabouts unknown. 

The TPLF has previously vowed to fight on as long as pro-Abiy forces have any kind of presence in Tigray, and analysts have warned it could shift gears to adopt insurgency-style tactics.

Abiy also said his government would focus on rebuilding Tigray and providing humanitarian assistance to the population of six million.

Displacement is believed to be widespread within the region, which has suffered multiple rounds of air strikes and at least one massacre that killed hundreds of civilians. 

The United Nations has spent weeks lobbying — so far unsuccessfully — for full access.

 Laetitia Bader, Horn of Africa director for Human Rights Watch, said Saturday night it was clear the conflict had taken a “heavy toll”, even if details remained unknown.

“The UN should be conducting an independent international investigation into abuses committed by all sides since the beginning of the conflict, with the mind to pushing for accountability,” she said.

(AFP)



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Ethiopian military has taken ‘full control’ of Tigray capital, chief of staff says



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Ethiopian federal forces have taken “full control” of the Tigray region’s capital Mekelle, the military’s chief of staff Birhanu Jula said in a statement posted on the military’s official Facebook page on Saturday evening.

Authorities had said earlier that government forces were in the final stages of an offensive in the region and would take care to protect civilians in Mekelle, a city of 500,000 people.

There was no immediate comment from the Tigrayan forces in the northern region who have been fighting government troops.

Claims from all sides are difficult to verify since communications links to the region have been down and access has been tightly controlled.

Thousands have been killed since fighting started on November 4, when Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed – 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner – ordered military operations against Tigray’s ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).

>> Tigray conflict threatens to ‘catalyse’ tensions elsewhere in Ethiopia

Tens of thousands more have streamed across the border into Sudan, and displacement within Tigray is believed to be widespread. 

Eritrea drawn in

Earlier on Saturday, the Tigray regional government accused Abiy of teaming up with Isaias Afwerki, president of neighbouring Eritrea, for the assault on Mekele.

“The Tigray regional state would like it to be known to friends and enemies alike that it will give proportional response to the massacres and property damages being done by those fascists,” it said. 

Ethiopia has denied enlisting Eritrean military support against Tigray but has acknowledged using Eritrean territory.

>> ‘A race against time’: Sudan struggles with refugee influx from Ethiopia’s Tigray

Residents of the border city of Humera in western Tigray told AFP that shells fired from Eritrea hit both residential and commercial structures during fighting earlier this month.

At least one rocket fired from Tigray targeted Eritrea’s capital Asmara on Friday night, regional diplomats told AFP. There were no reports of casualties or damage.

The TPLF claimed responsibility for rockets fired towards Asmara two weeks ago, but there was no immediate claim of responsibility for the latest attack. 

The TPLF dominated Ethiopian politics for nearly three decades before Abiy came to power in 2018, and it fought a brutal border war with Eritrea that killed tens of thousands between 1998 and 2000.

Abiy won his Nobel in large part for initiating a rapprochement with Isaias in 2018. 

Concern for civilians

Global concern about the conflict has heightened in recent days with world leaders and human rights groups warning of possible rules of war violations. 

The United Nations has spent weeks lobbying — so far unsuccessfully — for full access to Tigray.

Abiy’s office said this week it would open a “humanitarian access route”. Hundreds of UN and international NGO workers are currently in Mekele, but they are grappling with shortages of food, cash and other essentials. 

The International Committee of the Red Cross said it had received “1,300 requests from people in Ethiopia and abroad frantically looking to contact their relatives,” adding, “We know this is just the tip of the iceberg.”

Pope Francis on Saturday tweeted for “everyone to pray for #Ethiopia where armed clashes have intensified and are causing a serious humanitarian situation”. 

Abiy’s government has said the military campaign in Tigray was triggered by attacks by pro-TPLF forces on federal army camps in Tigray in early November. 

Abiy has repeatedly snubbed international calls for a halt to fighting and negotiations with TPLF leaders, saying they need to be disarmed and apprehended. 

On Friday, he met with three African ex-leaders — Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia and Kgalema Motlanthe of South Africa — dispatched by the African Union as mediators.

An AU statement said Abiy told envoys that military operations in Tigray “would not last long”.

The military expects to take control of Mekele “within a few days”, according to a report Saturday from state-affiliated Fana Broadcasting Corporate.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)



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More than a million displaced in Ethiopia’s Tigray region as UN warns of ‘critical’ food shortages



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The United Nations says shortages have become “very critical” in Ethiopia’s embattled Tigray region as its population of 6 million remains sealed off and its capital is under threat of attack by Ethiopian forces seeking to arrest the regional leaders. 

Fuel and cash are running out, more than 1 million people are now estimated to be displaced and food for nearly 100,000 refugees from Eritrea will be gone in a week, according to a new report released overnight. And more than 600,000 people who rely on monthly food rations haven’t received them this month.

Travel blockages are so dire that even within the Tigray capital, Mekele, the U.N. World Food Program cannot obtain access to transport food from its warehouses there.

Communications and travel links remain severed with the Tigray region since the deadly conflict broke out on Nov. 4, and now Human Rights Watch is warning that “actions that deliberately impede relief supplies” violate international humanitarian law.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed‘s 72-hour ultimatum for the Tigray People’s Liberation Front leaders to surrender ended Wednesday night. His government has said Mekele is surrounded.

The U.N. has reported people fleeing the city. Abiy’s government had warned them of “no mercy” if residents didn’t move away from the TPLF leaders who are accused of hiding among the population.

But with communications cut, it’s not clear how many people in Mekele received the warnings. The alarmed international community is calling for immediate de-escalation, dialogue and humanitarian access.

Abiy on Wednesday, however, rejected international “interference.”

(AP)

 



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Biden urges a cautious Thanksgiving as Trump rages on against election loss



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On a day of grace and grievance, President-elect Joe Biden summoned Americans on Wednesday to join in common purpose against the coronavirus pandemic and their political divisions while the man he will replace stoked the fading embers of his campaign to “turn the election over.”

Biden, in a Thanksgiving-eve address to the nation, put the surging pandemic front and center, pledging to tap the “vast powers” of the federal government and to “change the course of the disease” once in office. But for that to work, he said, Americans must step up for their own safety and that of their fellow citizens.

“This is the moment when we need to steel our spines, redouble our efforts and recommit ourselves to this fight,” Biden said. “Each of us has a responsibility in our own lives to do what we can to slow the virus.”

President Donald Trump, who has scarcely mentioned the pandemic in recent days even as it has achieved record heights, remained fixated on his election defeat.

He sent his lawyer Rudy Giuliani and other members of his legal team to meet Pennsylvania Republican state senators in Gettysburg. Inside a hotel near the hallowed battlefields of civil war, they again aired complaints about the election and repeated allegations of Democratic malfeasance that have already disintegrated under examination by courts.

“We have to turn the election over,” Trump said from the Oval Office, where he joined the meeting by speakerphone.

“This was an election that we won easily,” he said. “We won it by a lot.” In fact, the election gave Biden a clear mandate, and no systemic fraud has been uncovered. Judge after judge has dismissed the Trump campaign’s accusations as baseless, and the transition to Biden’s presidency is fully underway.

Nevertheless, Trump repeated: “This election has to be turned around.”

Trump had been expected to appear in person in Gettysburg, but did not after another member of his legal team tested positive for the coronavirus. Few at the meeting wore masks.

Altogether, the forum heard — and cheered — yet another declaration from a U.S. president seeking to reverse a democratic election and the voters’ will because he wants to stay in power. The setting was about a mile from the scene of Pickett’s Charge, where Union troops repelled a desperate Confederate attack in July 1863 and helped turn the tide of the Civil War.

>> Former CIA director Leon Panetta: ‘Donald Trump is damaging US national security’

The president followed up by pardoning former national security adviser Michael Flynn, the second Trump associate convicted in the Russia probe to be granted clemency by Trump.

The pardon was part of a broader effort to undo the results of an investigation that for years has shadowed Trump’s administration and yielded criminal charges against a half dozen associates. The pardon voids the criminal case against Flynn just as a federal judge was deciding whether to grant a Justice Department request to dismiss the prosecution despite Flynn’s own guilty plea to lying to the FBI about his Russia contacts.

For his part, Biden has largely projected serenity as the necessary elements of a presidential transition — money, access to office space and more — were held at bay for nearly three weeks by Trump’s machinations and a delayed ascertainment by the General Services Administration that he had won the election. On Wednesday, he addressed Trump’s raw tactics only in passing.

“Our democracy was tested this year,” Biden said, “but the people of this nation are up to the task.”

“In America, we have full and fair and free elections, and then we honor the results,” he said. “The people of this nation and the laws of the land won’t stand for anything else.”

And he offered an optimistic vision, calling on Americans to “dream again” and predicting that “the 21st century is going to be an American century.”

Biden pledged more virus testing, more protective gear and clearer guidance for businesses and schools to reopen when he becomes president. Until vaccines are distributed, he said, masks, social distancing and limits in the size of gatherings “are our most effective tools to combat the virus.”

Biden’s remarks came as COVID-19 cases are surging nationwide. Hospitalizations, deaths and the testing positivity rate were also up sharply as the nation headed into Thanksgiving, and public health experts have warned that the large family gatherings expected for the holiday are likely to extend and exacerbate the surge.

He has formed a coronavirus advisory board of scientists, doctors and public health experts, and plans to establish a COVID-19 coordinator in the White House to lead his administration’s response.

This week, however, Biden focused beyond the crisis stateside and unveiled his national security team on Tuesday, including his nominees for secretary of state, director of national intelligence and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Drawing implicit contrasts with Trump, Biden said the team “reflects the fact that America is back, ready to lead the world, not retreat from it.” He’s also expected to name Janet Yellen as treasury secretary in the coming weeks.

In urging Americans to be vigilant in their Thanksgiving plans, Biden said Wednesday he was taking precautions of his own, eschewing his traditional large family gathering and spending the holiday instead with just his wife, daughter and son-in-law.

He’s traveling with his wife, Jill, to Rehoboth Beach, the small Delaware beach town where the two have a vacation home. That’s where they’ll host their family for Thanksgiving dinner. Biden is expected to stay through the weekend in Rehoboth before returning to Wilmington for further work on the transition.

Trump will forgo his usual plans to celebrate Thanksgiving at his private club in Florida and will instead remain at the White House.

(AP)



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Global Covid-19 lockdowns inflame violence against women



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No country has been spared the coronavirus, nor the scourge of domestic violence which has surged during lockdowns, as the world marks the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women on Wednesday.

From a spike in rapes in Nigeria and South Africa, increased numbers of women missing in Peru, higher rates of women being killed in Brazil and Mexico and overwhelmed associations in Europe: the pandemic has aggravated the plague of sexual violence.

According to UN data released in late September, lockdowns have led to increases in complaints or calls to report domestic abuse of 25 percent in Argentina, 30 percent in Cyprus and France and 33 percent in Singapore.

In essentially all countries, measures to limit the spread of the coronavirus have resulted in women and children being confined at home.

“The house is the most dangerous place for women,” Moroccan associations noted in April as they pressed authorities for “an emergency response”.

In India, Heena — not her real name — a 33-year-old cook who lives in Mumbai, said she felt “trapped in my house” with a husband who did not work, consumed drugs and was violent.

As she described what she had endured, she frequently broke down in tears.

After buying drugs, “he would spend the rest of his day either hooked to his phone playing PubG (PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds) or beating me up and abusing me,” she told AFP by telephone.

Insufficient measures

On August 15, her husband beat Heena worse than before, in front of their seven-year-old son, and threw her out of the house at 3:00 am.

“I had nowhere to go,” she said. “I could barely move my body — he beat me to a pulp, my body was swollen.”

Instead of going to the police, she made it to a friend’s home and then to her parents.

She is now fighting for custody of her son, “but courts are not working in full capacity due to Covid”.

She has not seen her son in four months, though he manages to call her in secret from time to time.

It is not just the courts that are hobbled by the virus. The closure of businesses and schools, as well as cultural and athletic activities, have deprived victims already weakened by economic insecurity of ways to escape violence.

Hanaa Edwar of the Iraqi Women’s Network, told AFP there had been “a dangerous deterioration in the socioeconomic situation for families following the lockdown, with more families going into poverty, which leads to violent reactions”.

In Brazil, 648 murders of women were recorded in the first half of the year, a small increase from the same period in 2019 according to the Brazilian Forum for Public Security.

While the government has launched a campaign to encourage women to file complaints, the forum says that measures designed to help victims remain insufficient.

‘Mask-19’

Worldwide, the United Nations says that only one country in eight has taken measures to lessen the pandemic’s impact on women and children.

In Spain, victims could discreetly ask for help in pharmacies by using the code “mask-19”, and some French associations established contact points in supermarkets.

“The women who came to us were in situations that had become unbearable, dangerous,” said Sophie Cartron, assistant director of an association that worked in a shopping mall near Paris.

“The lockdown established a wall of silence,” she said.

Mobilisation on November 25, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women remains uncertain owing to restrictions linked to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Marches for women’s rights have nevertheless taken place recently in Costa Rica, Guatemala, Liberia, Namibia and Romania.

“We will not be able to demonstrate to express our anger, or march together,” said the Paris-based feminist group Family Planning.

“But we will make ourselves heard all the same, virtually and visually.”

Tamara Mathebula of the South African Commission for Gender Equality described a chronic “toxic masculinity” that was “everywhere you look”.

“There are gender pay gaps which are widening and continue to widen during the Covid-19 pandemic,” she told AFP.

“Gender-based violence worsened” as a result, she said, and the potential consequences were very serious.

In July, the UN estimated that six months of restrictions could result in 31 million additional cases of sexual violence in the world and seven million unwanted pregnancies.

The situation was also undermining the fight against female genital mutilation and forced marriages, the UN warned.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)



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Calls to protect civilians in Tigray as Ethiopia’s ultimatum looms



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International pressure mounted Tuesday on Ethiopia’s warring parties to cease fighting and protect civilians in Tigray, where the army says it has encircled the capital ahead of a threatened bombardment.

Forces loyal to Tigray‘s ruling party have been battling Ethiopian soldiers in the northern region for nearly three weeks, sparking a refugee exodus, civilian atrocities and fears of broader instability in the Horn of Africa.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, last year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, on Sunday gave the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) 72 hours to surrender — an ultimatum rejected by the leader of the dissident region, who has said his people are “ready to die” for their homeland.

As the deadline looms, the UN Security Council held its first meeting on the crisis, despite disagreement between European and African members over whether the closed-door discussion should take place.

Ethiopia’s army says tanks are within 60 kilometres (37 miles) of the regional capital Mekele, where it has promised a “no mercy” assault on TPLF forces.

“The highly aggressive rhetoric on both sides regarding the fight for Mekele is dangerously provocative and risks placing already vulnerable and frightened civilians in grave danger,” said UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet.

Amnesty International urged Ethiopia against using artillery and aerial bombings in Mekele, appealing for both sides to consider the city’s half a million inhabitants and the many more seeking refuge there from fighting elsewhere.

“Deliberately attacking civilians and civilian objects is prohibited under international humanitarian law, and constitutes war crimes,” said Deprose Muchena, head of Amnesty International’s east and southern Africa office.

The government said Tuesday that “a large number of Tigray militia and special forces” had surrendered after Abiy’s 72-hour ultimatum. 

The TPLF, for its part, said on Monday it had routed an army battalion and claimed responsibility for a rocket attack on Bahir Dar — the capital of Amhara region to the south of Tigray — where local forces are fighting alongside Ethiopian troops.

Tigray remains under a communications blackout and media access to the region has been restricted, making independent verification of claims from both sides difficult.

‘End this conflict’ 

Abiy has resisted growing calls for mediation since ordering troops, tanks and warplanes into Tigray on November 4 in response to what he said were attacks on federal military camps orchestrated by the TPLF.

The African Union (AU), headquartered in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, has dispatched three former African presidents as special envoys to try and broker talks on the Tigray crisis.

A spokesman for an Ethiopian committee handling the conflict said Monday the government would meet the envoys “as a matter of respect” but flatly ruled out negotiations with the TPLF.

Tuesday’s virtual meeting of the UN Security Council to discuss the crisis was briefly in doubt after African countries pulled out.

But diplomats from France, Britain, Belgium, Germany and Estonia ultimately forced the talks to go ahead, backed by the United States.

“At a certain moment, we have to put it on the agenda, even if the Africans don’t like it,” a European diplomat told AFP on condition of anonymity, highlighting the growing impatience over the lack of Security Council action on the weeks-long fighting.

The US National Security Council on Monday called for mediation and extended its support to the AU diplomatic effort “to end this tragic conflict now”.

‘Rampage’ 

The fighting has already driven more than 40,000 people into Sudan and forced many more to flee within Tigray. Hundreds have reportedly been killed, though the true extent of death and displacement is not known.

The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, a government-affiliated but independent body, said Tuesday that at least 600 people had been slaughtered in a “rampage” in the town of Mai-Kadra on November 9.

A local Tigrayan youth group aided by police and militia “killed hundreds of people, beating them with batons/sticks, stabbing them with knives, machetes and hatchets and strangling them with ropes,” the commission said in a report.

Tigrayan refugees from Mai-Kadra, who have fled to Sudan, have blamed government forces for the killings. 

Long-running tensions between Addis Ababa and the TPLF boiled over in September when Tigray proceeded with regional elections in defiance of the federal government, which declared the vote illegal.

(AFP)



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‘America is back’, says Biden as he introduces new national security team



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President-elect Joe Biden on Tuesday introduced a seasoned national security team which he said was prepared to resume US leadership of the world once Donald Trump leaves the White House.

The six women and men he has chosen to be his key diplomats and intelligence advisors said they would implement a return to multilateralism, global cooperation and fighting climate change after four years of Trump‘s go-it-alone policies.

“It’s a team that will keep our country and our people safe and secure,” Biden said, introducing his picks for secretary of state, national security advisor, intelligence chief, homeland security and other key cabinet jobs.

“It’s a team that reflects the fact that America is back. Ready to lead the world, not retreat from it,” Biden said.

Antony Blinken, Biden’s choice for secretary of state, vowed to pursue cooperation around the world, saying that the United States cannot solve global problems on its own.

“We have to proceed with equal measures of humility and confidence,” Blinken said.

“As the president-elect said, we can’t solve all of the world’s problems alone. We need to be working with other countries, we need their cooperation. We need their partnership,” Blinken said.

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Biden’s choice to be the next ambassador to the United Nations, echoed those sentiments.

“I want to say to you: America is back. Multilateralism is back. Diplomacy is back,” she said.

“The challenges we face — a global pandemic, a global economy, the global climate change crisis, mass migration and extreme poverty, social justice — are unrelenting and interconnected, but they’re not unresolvable if America is leading the way.”

Former secretary of state John Kerry, who Biden chose as his special envoy on climate change, confirmed the new administration would bring the US back into the Paris climate accord after Trump pulled out of the landmark 2015 deal.

But Kerry also warned that the Paris pact he helped negotiate was not enough to fight global warming, and called Tuesday for a UN conference in Glasgow next year to push for more.

“You’re right to rejoin Paris on day one. And you’re right to recognize that Paris alone is not enough,” he said to Biden.

Biden also introduced Cuban-born Alejandro Mayorkas, tapped to become Homeland Security secretary; Avril Haines as director of national intelligence, and Jake Sullivan as his White House national security advisor.

All three pledged to maintain an environment of professionalism among the government officials they will oversee, obliquely referring to the politicisation of much of government work that left much of the bureaucracy dispirited under Trump.

(AFP)



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