Ethiopia 'at a crossroads' amid spiraling ethnic conflict

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A destroyed tank is seen by the side of the road south of Humera, in an area of western Tigray annexed by the Amhara region during the ongoing conflict, in Ethiopia, Saturday, May 1, 2021. Ethiopia faces a growing crisis of ethnic nationalism that some fear could tear Africa's second most populous country apart, six months after the government launched a military operation in the Tigray region to capture its fugitive leaders. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)

GONDAR – Aba Yosief Desta preferred not to discuss the ethnicities of victims in the widening conflicts threatening Ethiopia's unity.

A wooden cross in hand, the Orthodox monk in yellow robes insisted that victims of massacres “have the same face."

Speaking to The Associated Press from the city of Gondar, where he manages a diocesan office, he reflected on the first known massacre of the conflict in the neighboring Tigray region. Ethiopia's government says ethnic Amhara were killed, but ethnic Tigrayan refugees have told the AP they were also targeted.

“It's better to say Ethiopians were killed,” the bearded monk said. “If one Amhara is killed and one Tigrayan is killed, it means Ethiopians are killed.” He hopes young people will shun ethnic-driven politics, which he calls “the source of all problems” in this country with more than 90 ethnic groups.

Africa's second-most populous country, with 110 million people, faces a crisis of ethnic nationalism that some fear could tear it apart as the federal government asserts its authority in regions such as Tigray, where a military operation launched in November to capture the fugitive regional leaders has escalated into a war in which widespread atrocities are reported and thousands have been killed.

As that war reaches the six-month mark on Tuesday, there is no sign of how it might be resolved for the Tigray region's estimated 6 million people. The United Nations human rights office has said all sides are accused of committing abuses against civilians, although far more of the killings, rapes, and mass expulsions are attributed to Ethiopian forces, allied Amhara regional forces, or, especially, troops from neighboring Eritrea.

Over the weekend, Ethiopia's Council of Ministers almost certainly ended hopes of negotiations for peace when it designated as a terrorist organization the Tigray People's Liberation Front, or TPLF, the regional party which dominated a coalition of groups that ruled Ethiopia from 1991 until Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took office in 2018.

The TPLF, like some others in Ethiopia, is an ethnic-based party that has long represented the people of Tigray in accordance with the 1995 constitution, which enshrines ethnic federalism. Under that constitution, regional leaders have been accused of asserting the rights of majority ethnic groups at the expense of minorities.