By Giulia Paravicini and George Obulutsa
OLBIA, Italy (Reuters) – Forces from Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region released about 1,000 government soldiers captured during recent fighting, the head of his ruling party said, as the two sides prepared for a clash. for disputed lands in the west of the region.
Debretsion Gebremichael, leader of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), told Reuters by satellite phone late Friday that they had released 1,000 low-ranking soldiers.
“More than 5,000 (soldiers) are still with us, and we will retain the senior officers who will face trial,” he said.
He said the soldiers had been brought to Tigray’s southern border with the Amhara region on Friday, but did not say who received them or how their release was negotiated.
Reuters could not independently confirm his account.
A military spokesman said he was not immediately available for comment on Saturday, and the Amhara regional administration spokesman said he had no information on the statement.
Officials from Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s office and a government task force in Tigray did not respond to calls seeking comment.
Clashes broke out in Tigray in November when the government accused the TPLF of attacking military bases throughout the region, which the party denied. The government declared victory three weeks later when it took control of the regional capital, Mekelle, but the TPLF kept fighting.
In a dramatic turn, the TPLF retaken Mekelle and most of Tigray in late June, after the government withdrew its soldiers and declared a unilateral ceasefire.
However, the TPLF promised to continue fighting until it regained control of the disputed territory in the south and west of Tigray that was taken during the fighting by the allies of the Amhara government.
Abiy said this week that the military would repel any threats from the TPLF, effectively abandoning the self-declared truce. Amhara and three other regions said they were mobilizing forces to support the national army in its fight against the TPLF.
Thousands of people have died in the fighting; around 2 million have been displaced and more than 5 million depend on emergency food aid.
On Saturday, the state-run Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation quoted Addis Ababa Police Commissioner Getu Argaw Debela as saying they had arrested 323 people suspected of supporting the TPLF, possessing weapons or violating the constitution, among other charges.
Debela said police had also closed businesses belonging to the suspects while investigating them.
This week, Reuters reported that police had detained hundreds of Tigrayans in Addis Ababa since late June, when federal government troops lost control of the capital of Tigray.
On Friday, the Ethiopian Foreign Ministry issued a statement accusing aid groups of arming the rebels.
“Some aid agencies have actively engaged in a destructive role. We have also confirmed that they have been using aid as a cover and arming rebel groups to prolong conflicts,” he said.
The statement did not identify the groups and there was no immediate response from the agencies operating in Tigray. The United Nations humanitarian organization OCHA did not respond to a request for comment.
The UN has said desperately needed aid is being blocked at checkpoints as convoys travel through government-controlled territory. Ethiopian authorities say aid needs to be controlled.
(Giulia Paravicini reported from Olbia and George Obulutsa from Nairobi; Additional reporting from Tiksa Negeri; Written by George Obulutsa; Edited by Katharine Houreld, Frances Kerry and Daniel Wallis)