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Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed speaks from behind bulletproof glass at his inauguration ceremony, after he was sworn in for a second five-year term, in the capital Addis Ababa, on Oct. 4.Mulugeta Ayene/The Associated Press

Ethiopia’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning Prime Minister says he will lead his country’s army “from the battlefront” beginning Tuesday, a dramatic new step in a devastating year-long war.

“This is a time when leading a country with martyrdom is needed,” Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said in a statement posted on social media Monday night. With rival Tigray forces moving closer to the capital of Addis Ababa, his government declared a state of emergency earlier this month.

An estimated tens of thousands of people have been killed in the war between Ethiopian and allied forces and fighters from the country’s northern Tigray region, who long dominated the national government before Mr. Abiy took office. The United States and others have warned that Africa’s second-most populous country could fracture and destabilize the Horn of Africa.

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The statement by the Prime Minister, a former soldier, did not say where exactly he will go Tuesday. His spokeswoman, Billene Seyoum Woldeyes, did not respond to a request for comment.

“Let’s meet at the battlefront,” the 45-year-old Prime Minister said.

In response, the spokesman for the Tigray forces Getachew Reda tweeted that “our forces won’t relent on their inexorable advance toward bringing [Mr. Abiy’s] chokehold on our people to an end.” The Tigray forces say they are pressing Ethiopia’s government to lift a months-long blockade of the Tigray region of some six million people, but they also want Mr. Abiy out of power.

The Prime Minister’s statement also claimed that the West is trying to defeat Ethiopia, the latest pushback against what his government has described as meddling by the international community. Envoys from the African Union and the United States have continued diplomatic efforts in pursuit of a ceasefire to the fighting and talks without preconditions on a political solution.

Shortly after Mr. Abiy’s announcement, a senior State Department official told reporters that the U.S. still believes “a small window of opportunity exists” in the mediation efforts.

In a year’s time, Mr. Abiy’s government has gone from describing the Tigray conflict as a “law-enforcement operation” to an “existential war.” With Ethiopia’s military reportedly weakened in recent months, and with its retreat from Tigray in June, ethnic-based regional forces have been stepping up and Mr. Abiy’s government has called on all able citizens to join the fight.

The Prime Minister chaired an executive meeting Monday of the ruling Prosperity Party, and Defence Minister Abraham Belay told state media that “all security forces will start taking special measures and tactics as of tomorrow.” He declined to elaborate.

Mr. Abiy’s announcement brought shock from the man who nominated him for the Nobel, Awol Allo, a senior lecturer in law at the University of Keele in Britain.

“The announcement is replete with languages of martyrdom and sacrifice,” he said in a tweet. “This is so extraordinary and unprecedented, shows how desperate the situation is.”

The Prime Minister in his 2019 Nobel acceptance speech spoke passionately about war: “I crawled my way to peace through the dusty trenches of war years ago. … I witnessed first-hand the ugliness of war in front-line battles. … War is the epitome of hell for all involved. I know because I have been there and back.”

Mr. Abiy was awarded the Nobel for making peace with neighbouring Eritrea, on whose border he fought while stationed in the Tigray region.

The terms of that peace deal have never been made public. Critics of the current conflict allege that the deal was instead an agreement for the two countries to wage war on the Tigray leaders, who were unpopular among many Ethiopians for their repressive 27-year rule despite significant development gains.

Eritrean soldiers have been blamed for some of the worst atrocities in the war, even as Mr. Abiy denied for months that they were inside Tigray.

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