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Ethiopia war intensifies as rebels advance toward capital

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The U.S. State Department this weekend ordered all nonemergency employees and their families to leave Ethiopia. It's another sign of the worsening situation near the capital Addis Ababa, as a year-old civil war appears to have reached a critical point. NPR's Eyder Peralta just returned from a reporting trip to Ethiopia, and he's with us now from his base in Cape Town, South Africa, to tell us more.

Eyder, thank you so much for joining us.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: It sounds like things are becoming dire. What can you tell us about the latest developments?

PERALTA: Yeah. So look; the rebels have had some big victories, and fighting continues. The government has escalated a bombing campaign. But the rebels are now about 200 miles from the capital, Addis Ababa. And they are threatening to continue their march. And what happened at the U.N. Security Council tells you how serious this situation is.

For months now, the Security Council has been unable to agree on a single joint statement. And on Friday, China and Russia finally relented and decided to join a statement that called for an end to this war. They say that the war threatens the stability of the country and the region. And they called on the parties to negotiate and to stop using, quote, "inflammatory hate speech and incitement to violence and divisiveness."

MARTIN: Wow. Well, what are the chances of this expanding into the capital?

PERALTA: I - look; that's the hardest question to answer. Ethiopia is a country that has seen many wars. And Addis has historically been spared the worst fighting. At the beginning of this war, the government promised a fast, quote, "law enforcement operation." But everyone knew this was going to be a hard war because all of the fighters in this conflict are battle-hardened.

And indeed, a year in, it has been horrific. Rights groups say that there has been ethnic cleansing and the deliberate targeting of civilians. And now the rebels have set their sight on the capital. I spoke to Neamin Zeleke, who was once an opposition leader in exile. And he is now a government insider. And I asked him if this war was a mistake. Let's listen.

NEAMIN ZELEKE: If you don't fight this war, then the country would have disintegrated. If that is a mistake, then I think it's a holy mistake.

MARTIN: Well, you know, from that clip, it doesn't sound like there's much prospect for peace.

PERALTA: Yeah. I think that's right. I mean, the language is existential. It's historic and - you heard there - even religious. The government believes if the rebels topple the government, Ethiopia, which is the second most populous country in Africa, the only one not to be colonized, will be torn apart. And the rebels say that this government and its allies have already waged an ethnically driven fight against their people. And if the government is allowed to continue, they say they face extermination.

And look; let's not forget that there are a bunch of other simmering conflicts and other armed groups that are fighting alongside the government and the rebels. And those alliances are, by and large, of convenience. So even if there is a military victory in this war, which seems unlikely, it is very probable that the fighting doesn't end there.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Africa correspondent Eyder Peralta. Eyder, thank you so much.

PERALTA: Thank you, Michel.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOGO PENGUIN'S "HOPOPONO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.