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Latest On A Military Conflict In Ethiopia


Last year Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed won the Nobel Peace Prize. And yet less than a week ago, he launched military operations in the country's northern region. Now that conflict is threatening to turn into an all-out civil war. NPR's Eyder Peralta walks us through what's happening.

And, Eyder, to begin, give us a sense of why the prime minister had won the Nobel Prize.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: He changed everything in Ethiopia. I mean, at home, he ushered in a raft of democratic reforms. And then he also made peace with Ethiopia's mortal enemy, Eritrea. During his Nobel lecture, he talked about how he fought in that war, and he called it the epitome of hell. Let's listen to a bit of that speech.


PRIME MINISTER ABIY AHMED: I've seen brothers slaughtering brothers on the battlefield. I have seen older men, women and children trembling in terror under the deadly shower of bullets and artillery shells. War makes for bitter men, heartless and savage men.

PERALTA: He says, war makes for bitter men, heartless and savage men. And when Abiy came to power, people on the streets of Ethiopia told me that he was sent by God. And now he has started this new conflict in the same part of the country where this war between Ethiopia and Eritrea happened, and his Air Force is now bombing targets in his own country.

CORNISH: What's the cause of the conflict? And at this point, how bad is the fighting?

PERALTA: So it's complicated because - but it's essentially a power struggle. Abiy Ahmed came to power in 2018 after a huge popular uprising. And one of the things that he did was dismantle Ethiopia's ruling party, which had run the country with violence and brutality for almost 30 years. The guys who ran the show were the TPLF, the Tigray People's Liberation Front, and they were sidelined. Since then, Abiy has accused them of destabilizing the country by stoking ethnic tensions. Abiy's allies have accused them of assassinations, including one attempt against Abiy himself. And last week the government says that the TPLF sent forces to attack a federal military base, and that's when Abiy ordered his army into the Tigray region.

Now, how bad the fighting is has been hard to report because the government has shut down phone lines, and the Internet is off in the region. I'm still waiting for a visa. Reuters, which does have reporters on the ground, is reporting hundreds are dead on each side. Sudan state media has also said that many refugees have started fleeing to their country. So it's serious.

CORNISH: What are the Tigray fighters saying at this point?

PERALTA: It's a lot of bravado. They're calling the government dictatorial and treasonous, and those are the same words that the government is using against them. And they say that they're open to talk. But at the same time, you know, they also say that if they're hit hard, they plan on hitting back just as hard.

CORNISH: Eyder, we talked about the threat of civil war. How high are the stakes here?

PERALTA: They're huge. Some analysts say that this could be like Yugoslavia, where Ethiopia breaks up. And Ethiopia, by the way, is the second largest country in Africa by population. And the conflict also has the potential to draw in Eritrea and even Sudan. And if it's protracted, it can really destabilize a region that is already super-vulnerable. And we can't really think of this as just a regional government against a powerful federal government. I mean, this is really one well-armed, well-trained military against another well-armed, well-trained military in a really fragile place in Africa.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Eyder Peralta speaking to us from Nairobi.

Thank you.

PERALTA: Thank you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.

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