The assertion and subsequent denial by Ethiopia’s president that his political opponents in Eritrea “killed my father” is turning into a major diplomatic incident.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was quoted Wednesday by a local broadcaster as saying that if opposition leaders escaped his country’s border, and “they are not returned to their country”, then “I would also like to say that I believe that they would kill my father.”
The spokesman for President Mulatu Teshome Wirtu denied that Ahmed made that statement.
Ethiopia’s government on Thursday said it considered the matter to be “closed,” while the AU condemned the remarks.
The speech was a sharp escalation in the rhetoric of Abiy, who has been viewed internationally as a leader pushing for the reconciliation that could unify two once-confused nations. In 2017, Abiy visited Asmara and declared the end of a 22-year conflict that divided the two countries, which have a combined population of 5.4 million. A similar visit last month sent officials of the two countries home, but not before a top Eritrean official warned that Ethiopia’s protesters opposed to Abiy’s reforms could topple his government.
The Ethiopian government, led by former arch-foe Derg leader Meles Zenawi, one of the harshest censors in Africa, rarely has appealed to the people of Eritrea, the poorest nation in the Horn of Africa, to rise up in support of regime change.
Eritrea gave up its claim to Ethiopia in 1993 as a condition for the withdrawal of Ethiopian troops from the tiny territory after 22 years of conflict. The rival armies have almost completely erased landmines along the border since January, when the presidents of the two countries met for the first time in nearly two decades and laid down a roadmap for peace.
This week, Ethiopia said it was upgrading the nation’s longest and most hotly contested border with Eritrea, calling for armed forces to be deployed to reinforce four volatile points.