Ethiopian govt vows to fight on in 'existential war'

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Ethiopia's government said Thursday it was on the brink of victory in an "existential war" against Tigrayan rebels and vowed to fight on, in an apparent rebuke of international ceasefire calls on the conflict's first anniversary.

"This is not a country that crumbles under foreign propaganda! We are fighting an existential war!" the government's communications office said on Facebook, following advances by rebel groups towards the capital.

The combative statement could dampen hopes for a negotiated settlement between the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, and the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) rebel group.

It came on the one-year anniversary of Abiy's decision to deploy troops into the country's northernmost Tigray region.

It also coincided with the first day of a two-day visit by Jeffrey Feltman, US special envoy for the Horn of Africa.

Feltman met in Addis Ababa with Ethiopia’s defense minister, finance minister, deputy prime minister and African Union chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat and will hold talks with more Ethiopian officials on Friday, the State Department said.

The United States wants "all parties to end hostilities immediately -- that includes the TPLF, that includes the Ethiopian government," State Department spokesman Ned Price said in Washington.

"We call on them to enter negotiations without preconditions towards a sustainable ceasefire," he said.

"We remain gravely concerned by the expanding conflict, by the violence, the expansion of the fighting throughout the country and the growing risk that it poses to the unity, to the integrity, of the Ethiopian state."

On Wednesday the TPLF announced it had reached the town of Kemissie in Amhara region, 325 kilometres (200 miles) northeast of the capital.

Spokesman Getachew Reda said the TPLF was working in the area alongside the Oromo Liberation Army rebel group, which on Wednesday predicted Addis Ababa could fall in a matter of weeks.

But Thursday's statement from the government painted an entirely different picture of the current battlefield dynamic, saying the TPLF was "encircled" and close to defeat.

"A rat that strays far from its hole is nearer to its death," the statement said, apparently referring to TPLF offensives that have advanced well beyond Tigray in recent months.

"Our people, realising that we are in the final chapter of saving Ethiopia, should continue their heroic struggle," it declared.

Lawmakers earlier Thursday endorsed a six-month state of emergency that allows authorities to conscript "any military age citizen who has weapons."

"After a year of war, the Ethiopian conflict is at an incredibly dangerous point, with no side showing signs of backing down," said William Davison, a senior analyst on Ethiopia with the International Crisis Group.

- More 'suffering' feared -

Abiy promised a swift victory when war broke out last November, but by late June the TPLF had retaken most of Tigray and begun pushing south.

Fighting has killed thousands and driven hundreds of thousands of people into famine-like conditions, according to UN estimates.

A senior official from Washington's humanitarian arm USAID warned Thursday of severe humanitarian repercussions if the TPLF and OLA try to take the capital.

"We can only assume that any march towards Addis would spread increased displacement, increased need and increased suffering for the Ethiopian people," the official told AFP.

"It would certainly increase the need for humanitarian assistance while also complicating the ability to provide that assistance."

The US embassy announced Thursday it was authorising the voluntary departure of most staff and their families, although no one is obligated to leave.

The British embassy has advised citizens in the country to "consider leaving" on available commercial flights, noting that "it is likely to become much more difficult to leave Ethiopia in the coming days".

- 'Egregious obstruction' -

At a candlelight vigil Wednesday, Addis Ababa mayor Adanech Abebe urged city residents to "keep the peace in our surroundings" and "report any sort of unusual thing," raising fears that arbitrary arrests of ethnic Tigrayans -- already commonplace -- would increase.

Despite repeated calls for an end to violence, militant rhetoric has persisted on both sides.

Meta, the parent company of Facebook, said Wednesday it deleted a post by Abiy that called for Ethiopians to "bury" the rebels.

A Meta spokesperson said the post was removed "for violating our policies against inciting and supporting violence".

Thursday's government statement criticised the move, saying Facebook "now has shown its true colours".

Tigray has been under a de facto humanitarian blockade since July, according to the UN, exacerbating fears of widespread famine.

On Thursday the senior USAID official accused Ethiopia of deliberately blocking aid.

"We continue to see perhaps the most egregious humanitarian obstruction in the world affecting Tigray," the official said.

"Practically no fuel, cash, medicine or medical supplies have entered in months, forcing humanitarians to scale back or halt their programmes completely."

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