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Ethiopian Prime Minister Orders Attack In Tigray Region

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Ethiopia's prime minister this morning has ordered his army to move on the capital of the Tigray region in the northwest of the country. This decision came after his 72-hour ultimatum ended for Tigray leaders to surrender. The central conflict here is between the new government of Ethiopia and the old government of Ethiopia. And aid groups have been sounding the alarm about a humanitarian situation that is deteriorating quickly. Tens of thousands of Ethiopian refugees have fled the fighting into neighboring Sudan.

NPR's Eyder Peralta is following this unfolding. He's in Nairobi. Good morning, Eyder.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Hey, David.

GREENE: Let's start with this offensive. I mean, the prime minister had been warning about this. It sounds like it's happening now. What do we know?

PERALTA: Yeah. So Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who won the Nobel Peace Prize last year, he says that the last chance for this war to have been resolved peacefully has now closed. And he says his troops are going into Mekelle to try to flush out the leadership of the TPLF, the Tigray People's Liberation Front. And he says that they will try to do everything to protect civilian lives.

But look - Mekelle is a big, urban, densely populated city. Think of something like St. Louis. And even the government has admitted that any fighting will result in civilian deaths. And Abiy's military has warned that they will use heavy artillery, and the TPLF has said that they will defend the city. So this war, which has been going on for about three weeks now - hundreds have already been killed. Tens of thousands have fled, as you said. And this will, no doubt, be the most consequential battle so far.

GREENE: I know this is an incredibly frustrating situation for a reporter to try and cover this because it's all but impossible to get in there and actually see what's happening firsthand. But, you know, there's been weeks of fighting now around the capital. What are you hearing about the conditions on the ground?

PERALTA: Yeah, it is hard to report, but I think - I mean, we can safely say that there has already been some pretty gruesome killings that the international community is saying could amount to war crimes. We know, for example, that in a village near the Sudanese border, there was a huge massacre. Videos from there have shown family members crying over bodies of their loved ones in the middle of the streets.

And the government's Human Rights Commission sent a group of investigators there, and they say that more than 600 people were systematically slaughtered. They say that they were killed with machetes. Their houses were set on fire. They say that militants tied ropes to their necks and dragged them to death. The government commission blames a youth militia aligned with the rebels for this. But the refugees fleeing into Sudan say that it was the militias aligned with the government who did this.

So we don't know with certainty who committed these atrocities. But what we know for sure is that civilians have already suffered terribly in this conflict.

GREENE: God, it sounds like it. And what about these tens of thousands of people who are fleeing? Where are they going? And what are they facing?

PERALTA: So they are going into eastern Sudan. Will Carter is based there. He's a humanitarian with the aid agency Norwegian Refugee Council. And let's listen to a bit of what he's been seeing.

WILL CARTER: Many have told us stories of heavy weapons and artillery and airstrikes in parts of western Tigray region, which is where most of the refugees we've seen have come from, and over the past couple of weeks, I guess, troop movements and militia movements through their cities - and they've really fled for their lives very suddenly.

PERALTA: And there was this one woman who he spoke with who had fled across the border, and her story really stood out. Here's what happened to her when the conflict began.

CARTER: She was pregnant, nine months pregnant, when this broke out and had given birth on the way to the border crossing and had no one around her that she knew. But a woman seeking safety had stopped to help her deliver. Thankfully, there was no complications with the delivery, and the child is alive at the moment at least, sleeping next to everyone in a big communal tent.

PERALTA: So, David, I mean, these are the kinds of situations and stories that show you just what a tough humanitarian crisis this has also become.

GREENE: Yeah, really. Well, it sounds like an awful situation, a dangerous one, with a lot of people's lives at stake. The situation in Ethiopia as we know it right now from NPR's Eyder Peralta. Eyder, thanks as always.

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