CAIRO – Ethiopia’s prime minister reshuffled his country’s security services on Sunday, days after ordering a military offensive in the northern Tigray region to prepare the country for a possible civil war.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed replaced the intelligence chief and the army chief and appointed a new federal police commissioner. He also elected a new foreign minister.

The appointments were announced on Facebook and a Prime Minister’s spokeswoman, Billene Seyoum, said they were “designed to enable the government to carry out the law enforcement efforts begun by strengthening the country’s security and foreign affairs”.

The moves put a multiethnic group of Mr Abiy’s closest allies in crucial positions, observers said, strengthening his hand as he doubled on a conflict that could threaten the country’s delicate democratic transition and lead to a divisive civil war.

“It’s a reshuffle that aims to make better use of human resources at the top to meet security challenges,” said Yohannes Gedamu, professor of political science at Georgia Gwinnett College in Lawrenceville, Ga.

The shake comes five days after Mr Abiy launched a military operation in the Tigray area after accusing his leaders of orchestrating an attack on a military base and attempting to steal artillery and military equipment. In the days that followed, Ethiopian warplanes bombed targets in the troubled region. Health workers reported intense fighting, dozens of wounded and at least six dead.

Mr Abiy, who won the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize for ending a long war with neighboring Eritrea, accused the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which governs the region, of undermining the constitution and federal law.

The Tigray make up 6 percent of the estimated 110 million inhabitants of Ethiopia. But for nearly three decades the group had an oversized clout at the national level, which withered after protests against the government that drove Mr. Abiy to power.

Relations between the regional and federal governments have been strained since Abiy took office in 2018, but hit a new low after the Tigray region held parliamentary elections in September despite the Ethiopian government Postponement of the national vote due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The decision to postpone the vote has been criticized by many opposition groups, including the TPLF, who said Mr Abiy was using the pandemic to illegally extend his term in office.

In October, the Ethiopian parliament voted to cut funding for the Tigray region, which escalated hostility between the two sides.

Mr Abiy doubled the military operation on Sunday, arguing that his government wanted to “defend and protect the constitutional order and uphold the rule of law”. He also accused the TPLF, without producing any evidence, of sponsoring and training anti-government militias across the country, including recruiting “underage recruits” to destabilize the Horn of Africa nation.

“Their goal was clearly to make the country ungovernable by creating clashes on an ethnic and religious basis – sowing division and discord so that democratic transition would lose its momentum,” Abiy said in a video statement.

The United Nations and other regional bodies have urged the warring parties to de-escalate the violence and find a peaceful solution.

But Mr Abiy has failed to heed this and on Sunday called on the international community to “understand the context and consequent violations of the TPLF clique that prompted the federal government to carry out this law enforcement operation.”

Diplomatic sources in Addis Ababa also said they expect the conflict to escalate in the coming days as the government mobilized troops across the country and brought them closer to the Tigray region.

Adanech Abiebie, the mayor of the capital Addis Ababa, confirmed in a series of tweets on Saturday that several TPLF members who worked in their administration had been arrested on suspicion of disturbing the peace and engaging in terrorist activities .

To remove control of the troubled region, Mr Abiy’s government blocked the internet and telephone networks in Tigray, declared a six-month state of emergency and approved the formation of a provisional regional administration. A State of Emergency Task Force has also been set up to impose curfews, make arrests and restrict means of transport.

On Saturday, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs warned of the escalation of the conflict in Tigray, saying the conflict’s blocking of air and road access has seriously affected humanitarian aid to hundreds of thousands of people.

Almost 9 million people are at “high risk” of being affected by the escalation of the military operation, which could potentially lead to “massive displacement inside and outside Ethiopia”.

Sajjad Mohammad, the head of the United Nations humanitarian office in Ethiopia, said the region was already experiencing a shortage of bread and fuel.

“Almost two million people in Tigray are receiving humanitarian aid,” he said. “If the supply lines close, that number could increase even further.”

Abdi Latif Dahir reported from Cairo and Simon Marks from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Tiksa Negeri reported from Gondar, Ethiopia.

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