In his first comments since Ethiopia suddenly ended its military operation in the northern region of Tigray, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said that his army units had been ambushed and “massacred” while passing through villages, but that any claims that his military had been defeated were “a lie.”
The remarks offered rare insight into Mr. Abiy’s view of a catastrophic, eight-month military campaign that began with his claim that the fighting would be over within weeks. It ended in increasingly fierce combat and international condemnation over reports that civilians had been left in hunger and subject to random killings and sexual violence.
Mr. Abiy, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, expressed resentment that his efforts to “rehabilitate” the Tigray region had not been recognized. He said the country had spent 20 percent of its annual budget — roughly $2.3 billion — on food and infrastructure for the area.
“After we made all these expenses and efforts, no one, including the international community, commended us and encouraged us to do more,” he said, “Instead, everyone accused us saying, ‘Famine is about to happen because of you.’”
He spoke to an applauding crowd in a hotel ballroom in the capital, Addis Ababa, on Tuesday. A videotape of the address was posted online on Wednesday.
More than 1.7 million people have been displaced and 350,000 pushed into famine, according to the United Nations. The United States Agency for International Development says the number facing famine is closer to 900,000.
Two officials with international aid agencies said their work in Tigray is now impeded because the central government had cut electricity, internet and phone lines to the region. Speaking on the condition of anonymity on Tuesday because they were not authorized to comment publicly, they said a colossal effort was now needed to bring lifesaving aid to Tigray.
One aid worker said her organization was “hunkering down” while activities such as delivering water to displaced people in towns such as Shire continued. But without fuel or cash in the banks — and with access to Tigray still blocked — scaling up operations will be extremely difficult, she said.
When Mr. Abiy had sent troops into the restive Tigray region last November, he had accused its leaders of attacking Ethiopian government military bases and of holding elections without permission.
His troops were joined in the fight by the army of neighboring Eritrea, to the north of Tigray, as well as militias from the Ethiopian region of Amhara.
Ethnic massacres were reportedly committed by both Amharas and Tigrayans during the conflict.
But as the fighting wore on, Tigrayans reported widespread human rights abuses at the hands of the Eritrean and Amhara militias, according to many reports. The White House imposed restrictions on aid to Ethiopia, and banned some Ethiopian officials from entering the United States. Tigrayans increasingly turned against the Ethiopian operation, reinforcing the ranks of the Tigray Defense Forces fighting against it.
Tigrayan leaders, who say they have reconstituted themselves as the government of Tigray, said in a statement on Monday: “The brave Tigray army, in a manner that’s difficult to explain, has destroyed enemy forces and is following the fleeing remnants and crushing them.”
Getachew Reda, an executive member of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, said on Monday that Ethiopian forces had capitulated in recent days as Tigrayan forces captured military assets, killed several hundred men and took thousands of prisoners of war.
The Ethiopian government, however, asserted that it had voluntarily withdrawn its forces in a unilateral cease-fire, for humanitarian reasons, to allow crops to be planted.
“Enemy claims that it forced the military to leave by hitting back and defeating us is a lie,” Mr. Abiy said in his address. “When an enemy disseminates fake news and media outlets give credence to it and multiplies it, that becomes a problem.”
Mr. Abiy said that at the beginning of the conflict, Ethiopian troops were confronted with an opposing army dressed in uniform. But as the conflict grew, the enemy morphed into a “bandit group” that was difficult to identify in mountainous Tigray.
“When the army passes through a village without witnessing any movement of the enemy, many people suddenly come from behind and attacked and massacred the army using Kalashnikovs or even machetes,” he said.
He claimed that in some areas of Tigray, priests carried guns and told people to rise up against the army.
“Most of the churches are being used to bury weapons,” he said. He said families that had received food aid would lie about the numbers in their families and give surplus aid to Tigrayan fighters.
“Our army sometimes stayed for four or five days without water when continuous fighting was going on, while the junta was busy drinking bottled water,” he said, referring to the Tigrayan leaders.
In the end, despite claims his army had not been defeated, Mr. Abiy said the conditions had become unbearable for his troops.
“So, we discussed for a week and decided not to bear this any more,” he said.
Mr. Abiy said Ethiopia now needs to turn toward more pressing issues, such as the Covid-19 pandemic and filling a massive hydropower dam on the Nile, which both Sudan and Egypt oppose without a binding agreement on how the water can be shared. Egypt and Sudan, which rely on the Nile for much of their fresh water, oppose any unilateral damming that may affect the river’s flow.