Ethiopian performing artists heed call to back war effort

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Marching in formation, the tunic-clad actors thrust fake swords and spears into the air and unleashed their fiercest battle cries: "I will fight for my country, Ethiopia! I am a soldier of Ethiopia!"

Later, on a stage adorned with photos of elite soldiers and the Ethiopian flag, the actors belted out war anthems dating to century-old campaigns against Italian colonisers.

Friday's ceremony at the Addis Ababa mayor's office was an example of how Ethiopians are heeding a "national call" issued this week by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to "deploy all means necessary" to defeat rebels from the war-scarred Tigray region.

This weekend the actors -- representing four theatre houses in the capital -- will travel to military camps across the country to entertain new recruits bound for the front, city officials said.

The mobilisation comes as fighting intensifies in previously unscathed regions, rebels explore new alliances and world leaders ramp up demands for a halt to violence so desperately-needed aid can be distributed.

Abiy has urged "all capable Ethiopians who are of age" to join the armed forces, though officials have stressed there are multiple ways citizens can back the military campaign which has dragged on for more than nine months.

Arega Ayalkat, a 23-year-old actor who will travel to a military camp in the southern city of Hawassa, said he was eager to do his part.

"It does not mean all people have to fight with weapons... Our role is to stimulate and motivate and also to embolden the frightened with music," he said.

"This call is from Ethiopia. Therefore, you cannot refuse her call."

- 'Everybody is on guard' -

Abiy, winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, sent troops into Tigray last November to topple the regional ruling party, the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), saying the move came in response to attacks on army camps.

He declared victory several weeks later when government forces took the regional capital Mekele, but the rebels mounted a shock comeback, recapturing the city and most of Tigray by late June.

Since then they have pressed east and south into neighbouring Afar and Amhara regions, seizing a host of towns including Lalibela, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Amhara that is home to medieval rock-hewn churches.

On Thursday Amhara's spokesman Gizachew Muluneh said fierce fighting was taking place in at least four locations including near the crucial crossroads town of Woldiya.

The TPLF also this week unveiled an alliance with rebels from Oromia, the country's largest region which surrounds Addis Ababa, further ratcheting up pressure on Abiy's government.

A recent briefing from the International Crisis Group (ICG) think tank described Ethiopia's army as "depleted", but Abiy's spokeswoman Billene Seyoum said Thursday the latest mobilisation call had "nothing to do with the military's capacity".

She told a press conference that "millions" had responded to the call in various ways, but did not provide details on the numbers who actually enlisted.

Abiy has also urged citizens to "work closely with the security forces in being the eyes and ears of the country" to track down spies, raising fears among rights groups who have already denounced arbitrary arrests of Tigrayans, activists and journalists.

"Everybody is on guard and everybody is ready to thwart off the threats and the terrorist activities that TPLF and its operatives are putting in place for the disintegration of Ethiopia," Billene said.

- 'Critical moment' -

The war has already exacted a massive humanitarian toll, with thousands dead, two million displaced and hundreds of thousands facing famine-like conditions, according to the UN.

That grim balance sheet has spurred global calls for the fighting to end, a message emphasised during recent visits by Martin Griffiths, the UN's emergency relief coordinator, and US aid chief Samantha Power.

Washington's special envoy to the Horn of Africa, Jeffrey Feltman, is due to arrive next week in a fresh bid to facilitate dialogue.

The visit comes at "a critical moment", the Biden administration's national security adviser Jake Sullivan said on Twitter.

"Months of war have brought immense suffering and division to a great nation, that won't be healed through more fighting. We call on all parties to urgently come to the negotiating table," Sullivan said.

Meron Wandrafrash, one of the artists who signed up to entertain recruits, acknowledged Friday that Ethiopia was in troubled times but said she remained optimistic.

"What is happening can be worrying, but we are Ethiopians, we will pass through it," she said. "This is not new to us."

***AFP***

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