Ethiopia’s Haile Gebrselassie, Feyisa Lilesa ready to join Tigray war

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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.

The UK has urged its nationals to leave Ethiopia immediately, saying the fighting may move closer to Addis Ababa in the coming days.

The rebels earlier this week said that they had taken control of Shewa Robit, a town about 225km (140 miles) north-east of Addis Ababa. There is no independent confirmation of the claim.

Communication Minister Legese Tulu said the military has had “many successes” since Mr Abiy’s decision to lead the battle, and victory was “so close”.

In other developments:

  • With Mr Abiy gone to direct the war effort, his deputy, Demeke Mekonnen Hasse, has taken charge of routine government business
  • Ireland says four of its diplomats have been expelled from Ethiopia
  • Hundreds of new recruits to the army have attended a ceremony, marked by patriotic songs, in Addis Ababa.

Earlier, Gebrselassie, 48, was quoted by state television as saying: “I am ready to do whatever is required of me, including going to the front line.”

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 he 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.

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

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.

The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) was the dominant party in government at the time. Following the protests, Mr Abiy became prime minister and the TPLF lost the grip on the country it had held for 27 years.

It later 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.

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

On Tuesday, Germany and France advised their citizens to leave Ethiopia. (BBC)

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