The Ethiopian parliament on Saturday approved the formation of an interim government for the Tigray region as fighting continued and fears of a full-scale war escalated.

A simmering dispute between Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s federal government and his former Tigray allies exploded on Wednesday after Abiy ordered a military campaign. He accused the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) of attacking a federal military base and attempting to steal equipment.

Ethiopian jets bombed the Tigray region on Friday, and Abiy promised further air strikes in the growing conflict, when reports surfaced that Tigrayan forces had taken control of key military locations and federal weapons.

Countries in the region fear the crisis could lead to an all-out war under Abiy, who won the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize for ending a decades-long conflict with neighboring Eritrea, but had to grapple with outbreaks of ethnic unrest.

Abiy defended his decision as a limited military operation necessary to restore law and order to the region.

Caretaker management

On Saturday, the Upper House of Parliament passed “a decision to abolish Tigray’s existing illegal regional assembly and executive and establish a caretaker’s administration,” the state-run Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation (EBC) reported.

The decision of the House of Federation was based on a legal provision that allowed the federal government to intervene in a region that is considered “unconstitutional and the constitutional system at risk”.

“The caretaker administration is tasked with carrying out a constitutionally acceptable election and implementing the decisions made by the federal government,” said the EBC.

The Tigray People’s Liberation Front dominated politics in Ethiopia for nearly three decades before Abiy came to power in 2018 due to anti-government protests, even though Tigrayans make up only about 6 percent of the population of more than 100 million people.

Under Abiy, the region’s heads of state and government have complained that they have been wrongly attacked in corruption prosecutions, removed from top positions and largely blamed for the country’s problems.

The Tigrayan armed forces are battle-tested and, according to experts, have considerable stocks of military hardware. According to the think tank of the International Crisis Group, their regional troops and associated militias number up to 250,000 men.

“Geopolitical Nightmare”

One of the greatest risks is that the Ethiopian army will split up on an ethnic basis and that the Tigrayans will switch to regional forces. There is evidence that this is already happening.

An analyst warned that the escalation could lead to “the greatest geopolitical nightmare in the Horn Africa region”.

“Most likely it could [also] lead to the greatest state collapse … in the Horn of Africa, ”Awol Allo, a lecturer at Keele University, told Al Jazeera.

“Ethiopia is a very large and very diverse country … and the constitution allows different governments to separate and become independent states,” he added.

A member of the Tigray Police Department at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Mekele [File: Eduardo Soteras/AFP]The government is mobilizing troops from across the country and sending them to Tigray. In other regions where there is ethnic violence, it risks a security vacuum.

Amnesty International said more than 50 people were killed by armed men from a rival ethnic group in western Ethiopia on Sunday.

Tensions with the TPLF have increased since September, when Tigray held regional elections, despite the federal government, calling the vote “illegal”.

Sources said behind the scenes efforts were being made to fuel the African Union-led talks. However, the authorities in Addis Ababa opposed the initiative, which insisted they must eliminate a threat posed by the TPLF.

Abiy accused the TPLF of attacking a Bundeswehr base and attempting to steal equipment, saying “the last red line” had been crossed.

The government then shut down phone and internet communications to the area, according to Digital Rights Group Access Now, making it impossible to verify official accounts. The government accused the TPLF of having stopped communications.

Diplomats, regional security officials and aides say the fighting is spreading in the north-west of the country along the border between Tigray and the Federal Government-backed Amhara region and near the border with Sudan and Eritrea.

Abiy said government forces had taken control of the town of Dansha near the border area from the TPLF.

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