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Members of Amhara militia control a motor vehicle checkpoint at the entrance of Dansha town in Tigray Region, Ethiopia, on Nov. 9, 2020.

TIKSA NEGERI/Reuters

United Nations officials are warning that nearly 15 million people are at risk from a growing conflict in Ethiopia in which hundreds of people have been reported killed after six days of fierce fighting and aerial bombing.

Ethiopian warplanes have launched more than 10 air strikes on Tigrayan cities in the rapidly escalating war, Tigrayan leaders said on Monday. The Ethiopian government says its air force is attacking weapons depots, including rocket and artillery storage sites.

Internet and phone communications in the region have been shut down by the federal government, making reports impossible to confirm. But hundreds of people on both sides of the conflict have been killed, according to a report on Monday by the Reuters news agency, quoting military and security sources.

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Tigray, a traditionally powerful region in northern Ethiopia on the border with Eritrea, was dominant in Ethiopia’s national politics for decades until Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed gained power in 2018. In recent months, Tigray has sought autonomy by holding its own elections in defiance of federal orders, leading to a cut-off of federal financing to the region.

The Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the region’s ruling party, has written to the African Union to seek mediation in the conflict. It accused Mr. Abiy of “leading the country into anarchy and disintegration.”

Mr. Abiy, in a tweet Monday, said the Ethiopian military offensive is merely a “rule of law enforcement operation.” The assault will “wrap up soon,” he said. “Concerns that Ethiopia will descend into chaos are unfounded.”

But analysts have predicted that the conflict could be protracted and bloody, since Tigray is heavily militarized and has an estimated 250,000 troops in its paramilitary and militia forces.

Humanitarian agencies are deeply worried. In addition to the 5.7 million people who live in Tigray, a further nine million people are at “high risk” near the region’s borders, according to the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs in a report on the conflict.

“Should the conflict escalate, it is possible that these people may be affected, which would lead to massive displacements within and outside Ethiopia,” the UN report said.

There are already two million people in Tigray who are dependent on food aid or other forms of assistance, the report said.

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“The blockage of air and road access to the region, as well as the regional communication blackout, is significantly affecting humanitarian operations,” it said.

In addition, the deployment of security forces to Tigray could leave a vacuum in other unstable regions, which could “incite more ethnic violence including attacks on ethnic minorities … and further movements of population,” the report warned.

Mr. Abiy won a Nobel Peace Prize last year for ending a lengthy conflict with Eritrea and taking steps toward democracy, including the release of thousands of political prisoners. “Love always wins,” he said in 2018. “Killing others is a defeat.”

Despite his flowery rhetoric, Mr. Abiy spent most of his career in military intelligence and has rarely hesitated to deploy the security forces to quell instability. This could be dangerous if it encourages ethnic groups to push for greater freedom in Tigray and elsewhere in the country, analysts say.

“The fragmentation of Ethiopia would be the largest state collapse in modern history,” a group of former U.S. diplomats and aid experts said in a statement after the outbreak of the Tigray war.

“Ethiopia is five times the size of prewar Syria by population, and its breakdown would lead to mass interethnic and interreligious conflict; a dangerous vulnerability to exploitation by extremists; an acceleration of illicit trafficking, including of arms; and a humanitarian and security crisis at the crossroads of Africa and the Middle East on a scale that would overshadow any existing conflict in the region, including Yemen.”

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Even in the shorter term, the conflict in Tigray could mark “the death knell for the country’s nascent reform effort that began two years ago and the promise of a democratic transition that it heralded,” the group said.

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