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14th Apr 2021

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Cyberattack behind Tigray blackout, says Ethiopia

  • Concrete skeletons of new buildings have mushroomed across the capital, Addis Ababa (Photo: EUobserver)

Ethiopia's ambassador to the European Union says a cyberattack is behind a communication blackout in the Tigray region.

The region was embroiled in fierce battles throughout November between local militias and Ethiopian Armed Forces, forcing tens of thousands to flee into Sudan.

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Ambassador Hirut Zemene on Friday (11 December) disputed reports the government was behind the blackout, making on the ground information access difficult.

Instead she told EUobserver recent evidence has emerged of a cyberattack against Ethio Telecom in early November in Mekelle, the seat of the Tigray regional state.

"It is not simple malfunction, it is being worked out and they are saying physically nothing happened to it. Physically it is fine, it was not attacked but you know it is the software that was affected through this cyberattack," she said, noting most of the region is now back online.

The ambassador on Monday (14 December) has since retracted her statement that it was a cyberattack and now claims it was sabotage, resulting in damage to the infrastructure.

The comments come amid reports by international media of civilians caught between an indiscriminate shelling campaign by government forces and government-allied ethnic militias.

Zemene disputed that account as well.

She accused the leadership of the ruling party of the Tigray region, the TPLF, of having used people as human shields in the city of Mekelle.

But she did note some civilians may have been unintentionally attacked by government forces.

"Can we say that there will be a margin of 100 percent of not civilians being attacked? We would be lying," she said.

She also attributed reports of the involvement by Eritrean forces as bogus.

Instead, she said a local textile factory in Tigray was turning out Eritrean uniforms in a scheme devised by TPLF leaders.

Those uniforms were then placed on Eritrean refugees, she said.

"There are about 200,000 refugees of Eritrean origin in Tigray camps in Ethiopia," she pointed out.

The UN secretary general Antonio Guterres recently said Ethiopia's prime minister had told him there is no proof of Eritrean soldiers on the ground.

But a US state department official claimed otherwise, describing as "credible" reports of Eritrean military involvement.

International and independent media is not yet allowed inside Tigray to verify government accounts.

"It will definitely be allowed but it will be a very gradual process," said the ambassador, when pressed.

The fighting has provoked fears of wider instability given Ethiopian forces are also facing off radical militants like the Al-Shabaab in Somalia.

Zemene says those forces have remained in place and not recalled back, as reported elsewhere.

Meanwhile, she noted humanitarian corridors have also opened allowing in aid to the region amid plans to bring home some 45,000 Eritrean refugees in Sudan.

She said the conflict is now over and that the country is pursuing reforms initiated under the leadership of its Nobel Prize winning prime minister, Abiy Ahmed.

The plan is to hold national elections next May, following last month's postponement - which is said to have provoked the initial TPLF assault on a camp housing federal troops.

Those elections and reforms, says Zemene, need to be better understood by the European Union in light of the fighting.

"We want the understanding of the European Union that this is something that can be managed within the capacity of the government with regards to the peace and security situation," she said.

Ethiopia is among the largest recipients of EU development aid, amounting to some €815m.

This article was updated at 12:55 on 14 December 2020 with a new statement from the ambassador contradicting her original statement

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