Ethiopia aims to end 'illegal administration' in disputed territory

FILE PHOTO: People displaced due to the fighting between TPLF and ENDF sit inside their shelter at the Abi Adi camp for the Internally Displaced Persons in Abi Adi town, Tigray Region

ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - Ethiopia plans to organise a referendum to determine the status of territory disputed by the country's Tigray and Amhara regions, the defence minister said on Tuesday.

The government also vowed to dissolve what it called an "illegal administration" in the area run by the Amharas, potentially risking a further backlash from former allies in the country's 2020-2022 civil war.

Defence Minister Abraham Belay's comments are the government's clearest to date on its plans for the disputed territory, fertile farmlands officially known as Western Tigray where some of the most intense fighting of the war took place.

The remarks are likely to fuel Amhara complaints that federal authorities have turned their backs on Amharas, whose forces captured the lands while providing military support to the Ethiopian National Defence Force (ENDF) against rebellious Tigrayan forces.

Those grievances have been at the root of fighting that erupted late last month between Ethiopia's military and local militiamen across Amhara and led the government to declare a state of emergency.

Abraham, who is from Tigray, but remained loyal to the federal government during the civil war, wrote on his Facebook page that efforts were underway to allow people from these areas who were displaced by the conflict to return home.

Most of those who fled the disputed area identify as Tigrayan, while the territory is currently governed by Amhara forces and administrators.

"In those areas where an illegal administration was created, it will be dissolved," Abraham said. "The ENDF will ensure there are not any other armed forces except the federal security forces."

He said the status of the lands would be decided by referendum "when our people are ready, and without any pressure from anyone".

Amhara nationalists have opposed the idea of a referendum, calling it an improper way to determine the status of territory to which they say they have a clear historical right.

Tigrayan officials reject Amhara claims to the land. The federal constitution, which was drafted by a former Tigrayan-led federal administration in 1995, recognises the lands as belonging to Tigray.

A spokesperson for Amhara's regional government did not respond to a request for comment about Abraham's comments.

Tens of thousands of people were killed in the Tigray war, which ended with a peace deal between the government and Tigrayan leaders last November.

Amhara nationalists complained they were not included in the negotiations and felt betrayed by the deal's stipulation that the status of the disputed lands be resolved in accordance with the 1995 constitution.

(Reporting by Dawit Endeshaw; Writing by Hereward Holland; Editing by Aaron Ross and Giles Elgood)