The speech doubled down on comments the Nobel Peace laureate made in an earlier Facebook post urging supporters to “march … with any weapon and resources they have to defend, repulse and bury the terrorist TPLF.” The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which ruled the country for more than three decades before Abiy came to power in 2018, has been designated a terrorist group by the current government.
“The prime minister calling upon the Ethiopian people to defend their city, to defend their communities, to defend their country” is part of the government’s constitutional responsibility to ward off any attacks, Billene told CNN’s Becky Anderson in an interview Tuesday, adding, “The prime minister is not asking people to go and attack their counterparts and their brothers and sisters.”
Billene also said the Ethiopian government has contested Facebook’s removal of Abiy’s post, adding that it was “not necessarily” a call “to arm everybody and descend into civil chaos, but … about being vigilant in their communities.”
More than a year of war
The TPLF has been battling Ethiopia’s military since the prime minister accused the group of attacking a federal army base and ordered an offensive in Tigray last November. The war has left thousands dead, displaced more than 2 million and fueled famine.
Throughout the interview, Billene repeatedly accused CNN and other western media outlets of misrepresenting the conflict in Ethiopia and contributing to “hysteria” that Addis Ababa was under siege.
For the TPLF’s part, spokesman Getachew Reda also told Anderson on Tuesday that the group was “not interested in power, we’re not interested in territory.”
“Abiy’s bombers are killing our children day in and day out, for God’s sakes, and we have to make sure those ‘dogs of war’ are restrained and we’ll continue to take measures,” Getachew said, referring to the ongoing conflict in Tigray.
Getachew said that fighters aligned with the TPLF would continue to fight until there was “readiness on the part of Abiy’s government” to negotiate a ceasefire, and that the TPLF would be “more than glad to extend the olive branch as well.”
UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said that while the investigation had uncovered violations linked to the Ethiopian military and allied forces, it had also observed “huge allegations of abuses by the Tigrayan forces” since Ethiopia declared the ceasefire in June.
Getachew told CNN that he “categorically” rejected the joint report because of the EHRC’s involvement, and called for an independent investigation. Tigrayans, human rights groups and other observers have also flagged concerns about the investigation’s independence from government influence, though the UN has reaffirmed its impartiality.
Allegations of ethnic targeting
“We know for a fact Abiy is trying to ratchet up violence against not only Tigrayans but also others who are not willing to fight in his desperate cause,” said Getachew of the arrests.
Billene told CNN on Tuesday that she would need to get further details on reports of alleged arbitrary detentions in the capital, but that the purpose of the state of emergency was “not to target any particular person based on the identity that they are aligned to.”
Instead, the policy is designed to “protect the Ethiopian people” and “to protect the residents of Addis Ababa” who have been told they’re going to come under siege, she said.
At least 16 UN staff members and dependents are among the detained, according to UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric.
Speaking to press in New York on Tuesday, Dujarric declined to detail the ethnicity of those detained. “These are United Nations staff members, they’re Ethiopians … and we would like to see them released, whatever ethnicity is listed on their identity cards,” he said.
State Department spokesman Ned Price said the reports were “concerning,” and that “if confirmed,” the United States would condemn them. He added that the US understood from reports that those arrested were Tigrayan, and that “detention on the basis of ethnicity is completely unacceptable.”
CNN’s Richard Roth and Jennifer Hansler contributed to this report.