Just a day after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced he was joining the fight against rebel forces from the northern region of Tigray, Ethiopian Olympic legends Haile Gebrselassie and Feyisa Lilesa say they are ready to go to the front line in the war against rebel forces. Tigrayan rebels say they are advancing towards the capital Addis Ababa.
On Tuesday, US envoy to the region Jeffrey Feltman warned that tentative diplomatic progress towards ending the conflict was being jeopardised by alarming developments on the ground. Germany and France have advised their citizens to leave Ethiopia, amid an escalation in the civil war.
Earlier this week, the rebels announced that they had taken control of Shewa Robit, a town about 225km (140 miles) north-east of Addis Ababa. There is no independent confirmation of the claim.
Abiy’s deputy Demeke Mekonnen Hasse has taken charge of routine government business as the Prime Minister heads to the front lines.
His announcement has shored up recruitment for the army, with hundreds of new recruits attending a ceremony, marked by patriotic songs, in Addis Ababa on Wednesday.
Gebrselassie, 48, was quoted by state television as saying: “I am ready to do whatever is required of me, including going to the front line.”
Gebrselassie is regarded as a legend in Ethiopia, and his comments were seen as an attempt to rally public support behind the war effort.
During his 25-year career as an athlete, he claimed two Olympic gold medals, eight World Championship victories, and set 27 world records. He announced his retirement from competitive running in 2015.
Expressing his support for the war, Feyisa, 31 said he was ready to draw inspiration from the “gallantry of my forefathers” and go to the front line to “save my country”.
He became famous for holding up his crossed wrists as if they were shackled to draw global attention to the crackdown on demonstrators demanding political reforms in Ethiopia.
The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) was the dominant party in government at the time. Following the protests, Abiy became prime minister and the TPLF lost the grip on the country it had held for 27 years.
It later retreated to its stronghold of Tigray, from where it launched a rebellion last November after a huge fall-out with Abiy over his reforms.
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