Ethiopia's Afar region called on civilians Friday to take up arms against rebels from neighboring Tigray, signaling a potential escalation in fighting that has already displaced tens of thousands this week.
"Every Afar should protect their land with any means available, whether by guns, sticks or stones," the regional president, Awol Arba, said in an interview aired by regional state media. "No weapons can make us kneel down. We will win this war with our strong determination."
Tigrayan rebels launched operations in Afar last weekend, saying they were targeting pro-government troops massing along the two regions' shared border.
A government official told AFP on Thursday that more than 20 civilians had been killed and 70,000 people displaced in "heavy fighting" in Afar that was continuing.
Rebel spokesman Getachew Reda has described operations in Afar as a "very limited" action against special forces and militia fighters deployed to Afar by the Oromia region, Ethiopia's largest.
Time to 'stand as one'
But Awol said Friday that the claim was misleading.
"Some people think they invaded us because we hosted the Oromo forces, but that's far from the truth, as they had the intention to separate and isolate us from Ethiopia by force," he said.
"It's time that every Afar should stand as one against the junta," he added, using government officials' preferred term for the rebels.
The fighting in Afar highlights the potential for Ethiopia's eight-month-old conflict to expand well beyond Tigray, where thousands of people have already been killed and hundreds of thousands pushed into famine, according to the United Nations.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent troops into Tigray last November to oust the region's ruling party, the Tigray People's Liberation Front, a move he said was made in response to TPLF attacks on federal army camps.
Though the 2019 Nobel Peace laureate declared victory later that month, TPLF leaders remained on the run and fighting dragged on.
Last month the war took a stunning turn when pro-TPLF fighters reclaimed the Tigray capital, Mekelle, and Abiy declared a unilateral cease-fire.
Yet clashes have continued, and officials from six regions and the city of Dire Dawa have since said they would send troops to back up government forces.
The road into Ethiopia via Djibouti's port, east of Afar, is vital for the landlocked country, raising speculation that Tigrayan rebels might try to choke it off.
Getachew has said this is not an explicit goal of the operation but has declined to rule it out.
Route key to aid deliveries
Separately, the road into Tigray via Afar's capital, Semera, has become critical for aid delivery in recent weeks, with two key bridges along other routes having been destroyed in late June.
But the recent fighting has put a halt to convoys, and the U.N. humanitarian coordination office said Friday that the route remained impassable, "preventing food stock, fuel and other humanitarian goods from entering Tigray."
A convoy of 200 aid trucks is on standby in Semera, awaiting security clearance.
On Thursday, the U.N. Humanitarian Air Service operated its first flight from Addis Ababa to the Mekelle since June 24, when commercial services stopped.
The flight transported "more than 30 employees from multiple humanitarian organizations working to deliver urgently needed assistance," the World Food Program said in a statement.
Government officials have accused aid groups of "arming" the TPLF, and one humanitarian official told AFP that security officials thoroughly searched everyone who boarded Thursday's flight and prevented at least some passengers from traveling with more than 30,000 birr (roughly $700).
Multiple aid groups have said lack of cash, fuel and other supplies is limiting their ability to reach people facing famine.
"At this point, it's severely restricting just how far we can go and whether or not we're able to reach those communities that are most in need and may have not had any humanitarian supplies delivered," one aid worker said Friday.
The government on Thursday blamed aid "obstruction" on the TPLF and said it was providing "unfettered access."