Ethiopia's Haile Gebrselassie and Feyisa Lilesa ready to join Tigray war

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Image source, Getty Images

Image caption,

Haile Gebrselassie is regarded as a legend in Ethiopia

Ethiopian Olympic heroes Haile Gebrselassie and Feyisa Lilesa say they are ready to go to the front line in the war against rebel forces.

Their announcement comes after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said he would go to the front to lead the war.

Tigrayan rebels say they are advancing towards the capital Addis Ababa.

Germany and France have become the latest countries to advise their citizens to leave Ethiopia, amid an escalation in the civil war.

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.

Gebrselassie, 48, was quoted by state television as saying that Mr Abiy's decision to go to battle was "expected from a leader who loves his country".

"I am ready to do whatever is required of me, including going to the front line," he said.

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, was quoted by the state-affiliated Fana Broadcasting Corporation website as saying that Mr Abiy had made the "right decision" by saying he would go to the front line to face the rebels.

He added that he too was ready to draw inspiration from the "gallantry of my forefathers" and go to the front line to "save my country".

The athlete won the marathon silver at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

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.

Image source, AFP

Image caption,

Feyisa Lilesa made the protest at Rio 2016 as he took silver in the marathon

The Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) was the dominant party in government at the time. It was forced out of power in 2018 following the protests against its 27 years at the helm and Mr Abiy became prime minister.

The TPLF then retreated to its stronghold of Tigray, from where it launched a rebellion last November after a huge fall-out with Mr Abiy over his reforms.

The war has created a massive humanitarian crisis, leaving thousands dead, forcing millions from their homes, and several hundred thousand in famine-like conditions as aid agencies battle to get food in war-affected areas.

The African Union is leading efforts to find a negotiated end to the fighting, but neither side has committed to talks.

On Tuesday, Germany's foreign ministry said its nationals should depart on the first available commercial flights, while France urged its citizens to leave the country "without delay".

Meanwhile an internal UN security document said "eligible family members of internationally recruited staff" should be evacuated by 25 November.

Previously the US and UK announced they were pulling out non-essential diplomatic staff, and told other citizens to leave.

In a post on social media on Monday evening, Abiy Ahmed, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019, said he would go to the front to lead the defence forces.

"Those who want to be among the Ethiopian children, who will be hailed by history, rise up for your country today. Let's meet at the front," he said.

The TPLF are advancing towards Addis Ababa on the A2 highway.

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