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Rebels are taking aim at Ethiopia's capital after 1 year of civil war

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The civil war in Ethiopia started exactly a year ago today. It's a war that's been marked by human rights abuses and has spawned a huge humanitarian crisis. Millions have fled their homes, and the U.N. says hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians are on the verge of famine. NPR's Eyder Peralta just wrapped up a trip to the frontlines of this war, and he joins us now from his base in South Africa. And, Eyder, can you just give us an update on where things are at this moment?

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Yeah. When I was there, the TPLF, or the Tigray People's Liberation Front, rebels were making a move for two strategic cities. They have beat the military to take those two cities, and now they're moving south. And they've teamed up with another group of rebels, the Oromo Liberation Army. And both are now within a day's drive to the capital, Addis Ababa. The U.S. is telling its nonessential personnel that they can go home.

And this feels like a pivotal moment, specifically for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who has had just a remarkable reversal of fortune. When he came into power in 2018, he was beloved. His pictures were everywhere. They were next to Guevara, great Ethiopian emperors and even Jesus. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019. But now he finds himself embroiled in this brutal civil war. And I spoke to Awet Weldemichael, who studies Ethiopia at Queen's University in Canada. And he says Abiy is at his most vulnerable point right now. Let's listen.

AWET WELDEMICHAEL: He is a sitting duck right now. Every move he makes comes with massive danger to him physically and to the rest of Ethiopia.

PERALTA: So he's saying if the rebels march on Addis Ababa, Abiy's life is in danger. But also, you know, this war would move into a densely populated metropolis. And the fear is that it could cost a lot more lives. And it would also put into question the integrity of the Ethiopian state.

CORNISH: Just to set the stage here, what is the scene at the capital now?

PERALTA: So I've talked to a few people who say that things are calm. People are trying to go about their business. But, look, the government has now declared a national state of emergency, which gives the prime minister sweeping new powers. And residents that I spoke to say that security forces are conducting raids. They're making mass arrests of ethnic Tigrayans. They're checking IDs. And they're moving, in some cases, house to house. Abiy was at a ceremony yesterday to mark a year since this war began. And he set a defiant tone. He said that the - that united, quote, "we will bury our enemies." And he called on everyone to join the ENDF, the Ethiopian National Defense Force. And he called on anyone who had a weapon to turn it over to the military so that they can keep Ethiopia together.

CORNISH: At this point, what are the rebels saying they want?

PERALTA: At this moment, the rebels are on the offensive, and the government is on the back foot. And in the past, the TPLF has said that it wants to end the government blockade of its region. And we should note that this de facto blockade has become a defining feature of this war. The Ethiopian government has allowed very little food aid to enter Tigray. And according to the U.N., that has left hundreds of thousands of people on the verge of famine.

The TPLF says it is fighting this war to end that blockade, but I think more recently, that aim is becoming more ambitious. Getachew Reda, who is a TPLF leader and spokesman, has in recent days started to overtly call for the fall of the regime. So I think it's clear that they are also intent on toppling the government. And at this moment, they are the closest they've gotten to Arat Kilo, which is the seat of the Ethiopian government in Addis Ababa.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Eyder Peralta. Thank you for the update.

PERALTA: Thank you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.