NAIROBI, Kenya – Ethiopia declared a state of emergency on Tuesday and called on its citizens to pick up arms and prepare to defend the capital as rebel forces from the northern Tigray region pressed south in direction of the city, after the capture of two key cities.
The Tigrayans, who have been fighting the government for a year, have joined forces with another rebel group as they advance in the capital, Addis Ababa. Foreign officials monitoring the fighting said there were signs that several Ethiopian army units had collapsed or retreated.
The state of emergency reflected the rapid evolution of a metastatic war that threatens to tear apart Ethiopia, Africa’s second most populous country.
It also marked another dismal turning point in the fortunes of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate whose international reputation was shaken by a war which led to reports of human rights violations, massacres and famine.
Only a year ago, Mr. Abiy launched a military campaign in the northern Tigray region, in the hope of defeating the region’s ruling party, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Tigray, its most worrying political enemy. But after promising a swift, if not bloodless campaign, Mr. Abiy was quickly drawn into a military quagmire.
The Ethiopian army suffered a major defeat when it was forced to withdraw from Tigray in June. Now the war is moving quickly on Mr. Abiy, after Tigrayan rebels have captured the towns of Dessie and Kombolcha, just 160 miles northeast of the capital, in recent days.
Under the state of emergency declared on Tuesday, Mr. Abiy has extensive powers to arrest and detain critics, impose curfews and restrict the media. Announcing the measures at a televised press conference, Ethiopia’s Justice Minister Gedion Timothewos said any citizen over the age of 18 could be called upon to fight.
“Those who have weapons will be forced to hand them over to the government,” he said. The state of emergency will last six months, the government said.
The announcement has sparked a mixed reaction in the city, where tensions have been mounting for days as news of Tigrayan military advances trickles in. A taxi driver named Dereje, who declined to give his second name, said he intended to join the fight.
“I am not going to sit in my house and wait for the enemy,” he said. “I will fight for my children and my country. “
But a teacher, who declined to give his name, said he had lost faith in the government. “They lied to us saying that the TPLF had been defeated,” he said. “I am terribly worried about what is going to happen. May God help us.”
President Biden, who has threatened to impose sanctions on Ethiopia unless it moves towards peace talks, said on Tuesday he would revoke Ethiopia’s trade privileges, including l ‘duty-free access to the United States, due to “gross violations of internationally recognized human rights.” “
In a separate briefing, Jeffrey Feltman, the Biden administration’s envoy to the Horn of Africa, told reporters that the escalation of the conflict could have “dire consequences” for the unity of Ethiopia and its ties to the United States.
Billene Seyoum, spokesperson for Mr. Abiy, did not respond to a request for comment.
Simon Marks contributed reporting from Brussels and a New York Times employee contributed reporting from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.