Three more regions reinforce Ethiopia army, Amhara against Tigray forces

By Dawit Endeshaw

ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) – Three more Ethiopian regions are sending soldiers to reinforce the national army in its fight against forces from the northern region of Tigray, regional officials said, widening a conflict that has so far largely affected the north.

Officials from Oromiya, Sidama, and the Southern Nations Nationalities and Peoples’ Region said their forces had joined the army, known as the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF), which withdrew from most of Tigray late in June.

A fourth region, Amhara, has already been locked in conflict with Tigray since the war erupted in November. Both Amhara and Tigray claim the fertile fields of western and southern Tigray.

In the past week, Tigrayan forces have retaken much of the south, but the west is heavily militarized.

Western Tigray has long been home to large populations of both Tigrayans and Amhara, and fresh fighting in the area could drive another wave of refugees from a conflict that has already forced 2 million from their homes.

“We have already deployed our special forces and they will join ENDF. Our people will also support with materials. It is the ENDF that is in charge where the special forces will be deployed,” said Oromiya Region spokesperson Getachew Balcha.

“If needed we will deploy more,” he told Reuters.

The Southern Nations Nationalities and Peoples’ Region also confirmed it sent soldiers.

“Close to 300 to 400 special forces were sent this week. I think they will be deployed on the western front,” said an official from the region’s communications office on condition of anonymity.

A Sidama official who did not want to be named also confirmed the region’s forces had gone to reinforce the national army.

Pictures posted on the state-run regional Amhara Media Corporation showed soldiers from Sidama posing with residents of the town of Debre Markos in Amhara.

END OF CEASEFIRE

This month, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed told parliament Ethiopia could mobilize about 100,000 soldiers from regional special forces in less than a week.

His remarks signaled an end to the government’s unilateral ceasefire, announced as troops pulled out of Tigray’s capital Mekelle. Tigrayan leaders derided the ceasefire as a way to cover up battlefield losses and the capture of thousands of prisoners of war.

Tigray’s ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), has said it will continue to fight until it restores Tigray’s pre-war boundaries and the government stops blockading the region. Currently most routes into Tigray are blocked and only one convoy of food aid has been allowed in.

Tens of thousands of Eritrean refugees are also caught in the middle of the fighting in two camps taken over by Tigrayan forces this week. A refugee told Reuters that two men had already been killed and three refugees injured in the fighting.

(Writing by George Obulutsa; Editing by Alex Richardson)

Turkey gains control of border strip inside Syria’s Afrin, sends special forces

Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army fighters sit at a back of a pick-up truck near the city of Afrin, Syria February 21, 2018. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

By Tuvan Gumrukcu and Ellen Francis

ANKARA/BEIRUT (Reuters) – The Turkish army on Monday took control of the outer edge of Syria’s Afrin region, state media said, as Ankara said it was readying for a “new battle” by deploying police special forces.

The military and allied Syrian rebel factions pushed some Syrian Kurdish YPG fighters back from the frontier near the Turkish border, effectively creating a “crescent” of control on Syria’s side of the border, the state-run news agency Anadolu reported.

Since launching its operation in the northwest Syrian region, Turkey has captured 115 “strategic points” and 87 villages, Anadolu said.

The Syrian Kurdish YPG forces said Turkish warplanes had struck a village near Jandaris in the southwest of Afrin, killing five civilians.

A YPG-led alliance said its forces had responded in self-defense to Turkish attacks, and that fighting raged on multiple fronts around Afrin. Five Turkish soldiers were killed in the space of 24 hours, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group, said Turkish troops now held a continuous strip on the edge of Afrin.

The advance opens a corridor that links territory in Aleppo province under the control of rebels backed by Turkey with the insurgent stronghold of Idlib province.

Ankara sees the YPG as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been waging an insurgency in southeast Turkey for three decades – though the groups say they are independent.

“NEW BATTLE APPROACHING”

Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag told the broadcaster NTV that the deployment of police special forces “is in preparation for the new battle that is approaching”.

Dogan news agency reported that gendarmerie and police special forces had entered Afrin from two points in the northwest, and said they would take part in urban fighting and holding villages that Turkish forces had seized.

Most of the larger towns in the region, including the town of Afrin itself, remain under YPG control.

Turkey says Saturday’s U.N. Security Council demand for a 30-day truce across Syria does not apply to its offensive in Afrin.

“Some regions such as eastern Ghouta are part of the U.N.’s ceasefire decision in Syria, but Afrin is not one of them,” said Bozdag, who is also the government spokesman. “The decision will not impact our Olive Branch operation … in the Afrin region.”

But French President Emmanuel Macron on Monday told Turkey the ceasefire did apply to Afrin.

The U.N. Security Council resolution demands all parties “cease hostilities without delay … for a durable humanitarian pause for at least 30 consecutive days throughout Syria”.

The cessation does not apply to military operations against Islamic State, al Qaeda and groups associated with them or other groups designated as terrorist organizations by the Security Council.

The PKK is branded a terrorist group by the United States and European Union as well as by Turkey, but the YPG is Washington’s main military ally in northeast Syria.

(Additional reporting by Daren Butler in Istanbul; Writing by Dominic Evans and David Dolan; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

Russia wants more details on U.S. special forces in Syria

A Syria Democratic Forces fighter walks under contrails made by U.S. alliance air forces on the outskirts of al-Shadadi town, Hasaka

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia wants to know more details about U.S. plans to bolster its special forces in Syria, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on Wednesday.

President Barack Obama announced on Monday the biggest expansion of U.S. ground troops in Syria since its civil war began.

The deployment of up to 250 Special Forces soldiers increases U.S. forces in Syria roughly sixfold and is aimed at helping militia fighters who have clawed back territory from Islamic State militants in a string of victories.

(Reporting by Andrew Osborn; Writing by Dmitry Solovyov; Editing by Denis Pinchuk)

In an added story…

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia holds enough forces at its Hmeymim air base in Syria to safeguard the ceasefire and assist Syrian government forces in fighting rebels from Islamic State and the Nusra Front, General Sergei Rudskoi, a senior Russian Defence Ministry official, Interfax news agency quoted him as saying on Wednesday.

(Reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin; Writing by Dmitry Solovyov)