Ethiopia's government on Tuesday summoned all capable citizens to war, urging them to join the country's military to stop resurgent forces from the embattled Tigray region "once and for all."
The call to arms is an ominous sign that all of Ethiopia's 110 million people are being drawn into a conflict that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, once declared would be over within weeks.
The deadly fighting has now spread beyond Tigray into neighbouring regions, threatening to fracture the continent's second most populous country which, in turn, could destabilize the entire Horn of Africa region.
Tuesday's announcement effectively ends the unilateral ceasefire the government declared in June as its military retreated from Tigray.
It is also almost certain to magnify the toll of a nine-month war that has led to the massacre of thousands, gang rapes and the displacement of entire communities, mostly Tigrayan.
Hundreds of thousands of people in Tigray now face famine conditions in the world's worst hunger crisis in a decade.
The prime minister's summons chilled Tigrayans, even those outside Tigray, with the statement calling on all Ethiopians to be "the eyes and ears of the country in order to track down and expose spies and agents" of the Tigray forces.
Witnesses and lawyers have said thousands of Tigrayans have already been detained during the conflict for their identity alone.
War on 'another level'
"The kind of war he's calling for is on another level, it's for a total annihilation of Tigray," said Teklehaymanot G. Weldemichel, whose family remains trapped in the Tigray region. "'Once and for all' means to finish everyone out."
The expansion of fighting has alarmed some people of other ethnicities, such as the Amhara, who fear that the Tigray forces, now on the offensive, will take revenge.
"We know the [Tigray People's Liberation Front] is well-armed and the losers would again be the Amhara people," Demissie Alemayehu, a U.S.-based professor who was born in the Amhara region, said shortly after the prime minister's call to war.
Without addressing Ethiopia's root problems, including a constitution based on ethnic differences, he said, it will be "very difficult to talk about peace."
Ethiopia's sharply worded statement came after weeks of mobilization by the federal government, including military recruiting and blood donation drives, as Tigray forces pushed into the neighbouring Amhara and Afar regions.
On Tuesday, the spokesman for the Tigray forces, Getachew Reda, said the prime minister "wants to send militia to the war front as cannon fodder" and called it unfortunate that "ill-trained, ill-equipped people" are now being pressed into the fight.
Fighting began in November and took a stunning turn in June when the Tigray forces, strengthened by new recruits among Tigrayans horrified by the war's atrocities, retook much of the region.
The Tigray forces now say they want to secure their long-blockaded region of six million people, end the fighting and see the prime minister leave office. Despite the resentment of many in Ethiopia, they are hoping for public support as they vow to press to the capital, Addis Ababa, if needed.
"If his government topples, that's icing on the cake," spokesman for the Tigray forces told The Associated Press last week.
Last week the United Nations and the United States sent high-level officials to press Ethiopia's government for more access to Tigray, where telephone, internet and banking services remain cut off. But Ethiopia's government has been angered by the international pressure over Tigray, especially as the fighting spreads.
Some 300,000 people have now been displaced outside Tigray, and this week the UN said it was "extremely alarmed" by reports that more than 200 people had been killed in attacks on displaced people in Afar. Ethiopia's government blamed the Tigray forces, whose spokesman denied it.
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