Bahir Dar, Ethiopia – This week, Tigrayan fighters launched a new offensive along the southern border area with the Amhara region to reclaim the territory that is said to have been captured by Amhara fighters during the ongoing war in the region. northernmost Ethiopia, Tigray.
The eight-month conflict has pitted the Ethiopian army and its Eritrean troops and allied fighters from the Amhara region, along with Ethiopia, against forces loyal to the region’s former ruling party, the Front. Liberation of the Tigray People (TPLF).
Tigrayan fighters, recently renamed the Tigray Defense Forces (TDF), recaptured the regional capital, Mekelle, in late June. Federal troops have withdrawn from much of Tigray and the Addis Ababa government has declared a unilateral ceasefire, but Amhara forces say they will remain in disputed territories in western and southern Tigray.
Al Jazeera spoke with Fanta Mandefro, vice president of the Amhara region, who said Amhara special forces had been deployed at the borders to defend his land and people. The following interview has been edited slightly for brevity and clarity.
Al Jazeera: The PTO is advancing south and west, taking key cities such as Korem, Alamata and Raya. They say they are reclaiming their land. What is your reaction?
Fanta Mandefro: The Amhara regional government is defending its people against the aggression of TPLF, which has opened an aggressive war that is directed against civilians with the aim of ethnic cleansing.
In response to this, the Amhara regional government is defending its people and calling on the people to defend themselves in their own villages to defend themselves against the aggressor and not fall victim to these atrocities.
Al Jazeera: So, do you call on the civilian population to take up arms?
Boys: Yes, just to protect yourself. That is, in their own people they must be aware, they must not be victims. They are not armed in any way. In some places, they have been evicted from their homes. People who fled the atrocities are witnesses.
Al Jazeera: How can they be defended?
Boys: They must be aware and, whenever the aggressors arrive, they must prepare in any way to defend themselves by whatever mechanism they have.
It is a sad time for civilians. This is the planting season and people are forced to evacuate from their farms and villages.
Al Jazeera: Does this call for civilians to take up arms effectively mean the ceasefire is over?
Boys: No [federal] the government declared a ceasefire and left Tigray. But now TPLF forces are invading south and committing atrocities. Therefore, it is not legitimate for us [regional] the government sits down when our people are persecuted, expelled indefinitely from their villages, when they are displaced, when infrastructure is damaged.
The unilateral ceasefire is not broken, but that does not mean that our regional government will simply sit down when our people are displaced and killed. We never went an inch next to the Tigray. We simply defend our own land.
Al Jazeera: The TPLF will discuss it, they will say that these are Tigrinya territories, officially recognized and mapped. They say Amhara forces used the conflict to seize the land of Tigrayan.
Boys: There have been no historical disputes over these lands. When TPLF came to power in 1991, it decided unilaterally on these areas and decided on unfair demarcations. Even during this time, the territories were not legally part of the Tigrinya land.
We are talking about the last 30 years. The Amhara people never approved the annexation at that time. They never consulted us. The land was taken unilaterally by the TPLF, and it is not just land.
We are also talking about the freedom of our people, the people who have been persecuted for 30 years, eliminated, who face ethnic cleansing. This is what happened in Welkait (western Tigray), Raya (southern Tigray) and so many other places. They eliminated our people and established their own people.
Al Jazeera: Tigrayan’s forces say they will not surrender until they have all their land behind them. What concern does it have for you?
Boys: It is not a matter of concern. It is a reality.
Al Jazeera: So, are you deploying more troops to the front line?
Boys: We will defend our people. That’s all. We will not move our troops an inch into the territory of Tigray, but we will defend our people. They have been subjected to ill-treatment and inhuman treatment. I appeal to the international community not to allow it. Not only should it be the responsibility of the regional government of Amhara and the federal government of Ethiopia. It should also be the responsibility of the international community to protect civilians from atrocities.
Al Jazeera: Amhara forces (ASF), Ethiopian federal troops and Eritrean soldiers have also been accused of atrocities by rights groups. The ASF has been specifically blamed for destroying the bridges over the Tekeze River.
Boys: I have no information of our troops committing atrocities. These bodies should provide adequate evidence.
As for the Tekeze Bridge, TPLF forces are known to destroy infrastructure and then point a finger at other groups.
Al Jazeera: So didn’t the Amhara forces destroy the bridge?
Boys: Not at all.
Al Jazeera: Do you have evidence that the PTO blew up the bridge?
Boys: It is TDF.
They must stop the aggression, stop invading other people and commit atrocities. There is no benefit to any conflict. The conflict is harmful.
We are very worried. Peace is needed. Civilians need to engage in productive activities so that they can feed themselves. There is no conflict between the Tigray people and Amhara. It is the TPLF that pushes the Tigray people into the realm of conflict and forces the Amhara people to defend themselves.