For three decades, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, a rebel group that evolved into a political party, was the dominant force in Ethiopian politics. It controlled the military, intelligence services and the economy when it governed Africa’s second-most-populous nation.
Now the group, forced from power in 2018, is fighting for survival as federal government forces claim to have seized its last remaining stronghold three weeks after a struggle for control of Ethiopia flared into armed conflict, threatening to tear the country apart.
On Saturday, government forces claimed to have taken control of the Tigrayan capital of Mekelle, home to half a million civilians and thousands of battle-hardened TPLF fighters who had dug trenches and blown up bridges to halt the advance of federal troops. The government troops appear to have faced little resistance, meaning TPLF fighters have likely melted into the civilian population and hide-outs elsewhere in the state, where regional analysts and Western diplomats say they are preparing to mount an armed insurgency.
Tensions between Tigray and the government reached a flashpoint when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed postponed national elections due to the coronavirus pandemic and the TPLF held its own local vote, despite the central government deeming it illegal. The rifts exploded into armed conflict on Nov. 4 after the Ethiopian army accused the TPLF of attacking a military base in Tigray and killing many soldiers.
Ethiopia’s government says the TPLF is a “criminal clique” and has vowed to fight the group to the end. On Saturday, Mr. Ahmed hailed the liberation of Mekelle as a victory, prompting thousands of supporters to tweet #EthiopiaPrevails.