Protesters block Ethiopia's rail link to Djibouti as conflict escalates

Protesters in Ethiopia's Somali region, angry at a deadly attack that was blamed on a militia from Afar [Picture: Reuters]

NAIROBI, Kenya - The vital railway and road link to Djibouti was on Wednesday destroyed, in what could now cut essential supplies to Addis Ababa, which depends on the Port of Djibouti for imports and exports, which are essential for Ethiopia's economy.

A top government official said the railway was partly uprooted and some sections blocked, paralyzing transport between Ethiopia and Djibouti. This is the first reaction from ordinary people in Ethiopia which targets the economy.

The railway between the two eastern African nations has been closed since the demonstrations took place Monday, Mohamed Rooble, a spokesman for the government of Ethiopia’s Somali region, said Tuesday.

The protest followed an attack by special forces and militia fighters from the neighboring Afar region carried out on the town of Garbaiisa, where many ethnic Somalis live. Hundreds of people have been killed by the Afar militia in the contested area with the Somali region.

Somali authorities confirmed at least 300 people died in the violence, which began on July 24, Mohamed said. The protesters also closed the road that links the Somali region to Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, as a reaction to hostilities from the neighboring Afar.

The blocked trade route risks further damage to Ethiopia’s economy, which is already struggling to deal with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and a nine-month conflict in its northern Tigray region. Ethiopia relies on Djibouti’s port and transport-related infrastructure for 95% of its maritime trade, according to the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies.

Yields on the nation’s 2024 Eurobonds rose for a fifth straight day on Tuesday, climbing to 10.26%, the highest since May 2020.

The conflict that began in Tigray in November has spread to Afar and risks spilling over into the Amhara region. The violence has displaced has displaced at least 2 million people and left thousands dead.

A spokesman for the regional government in Afar didn’t immediately respond to calls seeking comment. Tilahun Sarka, director-general of the state-backed Ethio Djibouti Railway company, didn’t immediately respond to a call seeking comment.

Worthy to note, the conflict between Afar and Somali regions got nothing to do with the current animosity between the federal government and Tigray region. However, in the middle of the clashes, the Somali region had sent troops to join federal forces ahead of the planned assault in Tigray.

A few weeks ago, Tigray Defense Forces [TDF] had started making inroads to Afar territory, vowing to cut the railway and road links to Djibouti as retaliation to the genocide that was executed by federal troops, Amhara regional forces, and Eritrea troops in the Tigray region.

There were reports that Djibouti had sent her military to the border with Ethiopia to deal with these eventualities but the government dismissed those allegations. The road and railway link gives Djibouti millions of dollars from the foreign exchange since Ethiopia almost entirely depends on its port.


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