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Ethiopia Attacks Rebels in Tigray as Famine Threatens

NAIROBI, Kenya — The conflict in northern Ethiopia has escalated sharply in recent days, as Ethiopian forces began a sweeping offensive in a bid to reverse recent gains by Tigrayan rebels, Western officials and Tigrayan leaders said.

U.N. officials said the attack will deepen the humanitarian crisis in a region that is plunging into the world’s worst famine in a decade. With the Ethiopian government blocking aid shipments, some starving Tigrayans are eating leaves to survive.

Senior Western officials broadly confirmed Tigrayan accounts that the assault, which had been anticipated for weeks, started in the Amhara region, which borders Tigray to the south. But beyond that, it is hard to get a clear picture of the situation.

A strict communications blackout imposed by the government means few details about the fighting can be independently confirmed. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who was sworn in for a second term last week, has declined to comment in recent days.

His spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.

Speaking by phone, Gen. Tsadkan Gebretensae, a member of the central command of the Tigray forces and its leading strategist, said Ethiopian forces had begun the military operation on Friday with a bombardment of Tigrayan positions using warplanes, artillery and drones.

On Monday, the Ethiopians switched to a ground offensive led by thousands of fighters, to be met by a Tigrayan counteroffensive, he said.

“The enemy has been preparing for months, and so have we,” said General Tsadkan, who previously commanded Ethiopia’s armed forces for a decade. He predicted the coming battle would be a “decisive moment” for the country.

“The ramifications will be military, political and diplomatic,” he said. “I don’t think this will be a protracted fight — a matter of days, most probably weeks.”

For Mr. Abiy, winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, the offensive is an effort to wrest control of a brutal 11-month war that has ruined his reputation as a peacemaker and slipped beyond his grip as the fighting spread to new areas in recent months.

Mr. Abiy has appeared increasingly isolated from international support as the United States threatens him with the prospect of sanctions, and he clashes with the U.N. leadership. Only a few African leaders have continued to support him.

This month, Ethiopia expelled seven senior U.N. officials it accused of “meddling” in the nation’s internal affairs and diverting aid to the Tigrayan rebels. The U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres denied those charges in unusually sharp language, telling Mr. Abiy the expulsions had no legal basis.

Likening the situation to the devastating Somalia famine of 2011, Mr. Guterres said he warned Mr. Abiy that Ethiopian restrictions on the delivery of aid had created a humanitarian crisis that was “spiraling out of control.”

Over five million Tigrayans urgently need relief aid, and at least 400,000 are in famine-like conditions, the U.N. says. But barely one-tenth of required aid has reached them because Ethiopia has blocked the routes into the region, officials said.

The Biden administration has tried to force Mr. Abiy and the Tigrayans into peace talks by threatening sanctions against “officials and entities” who block humanitarian aid and refuse to stop fighting.

With his latest attack, however, Mr. Abiy seems to be gambling that he can prevail using force.

Western officials said the Ethiopian leader had been preparing the offensive for months. He amassed new weapons from foreign suppliers and recruited tens of thousands of young Ethiopians to help fight Tigrayan forces he has described as “cancer” and “weeds.”

One Western official said Mr. Abiy had acquired new drones built in Iran, Turkey and China, although it is unclear who supplied them to Ethiopia. Websites that track international air traffic have recorded dozens of cargo flights from the United Arab Emirates, and a handful from Iran, into Ethiopian air force bases in the past six weeks.

Tigrayan leaders have accused the U.A.E. of sending armed drones to help Mr. Abiy during the early weeks of the war last November; Emirati officials have refused to comment. Airstrikes took out most of the Tigrayan artillery and forced its troops to retreat into the remote countryside.

A more consequential question now is whether Eritrea will again rally to Mr. Abiy’s side. Eritrean troops offered crucial support in the first phase of the war, until June, and faced many of the worst accusations of atrocities against civilians. The Eritreans are currently occupying Humera, a town in western Tigray, and some have deployed to Amhara, two western officials said.

But it’s unclear if they are participating in the latest fighting.

Tigrayan forces scored a series of surprise victories that forced Ethiopian forces out of Tigray. In July, the Tigrayans pushed into the Amhara region, where the fighting has been centered ever since.

A long-running dispute between Amhara and Tigray over a swath of disputed land drew Amhara militias into the fight against Tigray last November. The Tigrayans say those fighters are also participating in the latest offensives, along with regular Ethiopian troops and young men from across Ethiopia drawn by Mr. Abiy’s appeal for recruits during the summer.

But General Tsadkan, the Tigrayan commander, said he considered the autocratic leader of Eritrea, Isaias Afwerki, who is an old foe of the Tigrayans, as his greatest threat.

“Isaias and his army are the major spoiler in the region,” he said. “If the international community is earnestly looking for a peaceful solution, a settlement will not happen without taking care of Isaias.”

Both sides face intense pressures. The Tigrayans, surrounded by enemies, risk running out of supplies soon. Mr. Abiy is wrestling with a steep economic slide that has led to soaring food prices and foreign currency shortages, which American sanctions could soon make worse.

Ethiopian Airlines, Africa’s biggest airline and Ethiopia’s flagship economic success, last week denied a report on CNN that its aircraft had been used to ship weapons and soldiers for the war in Tigray.

On Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken met with the newly appointed African Union envoy to Ethiopia, former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, to discuss the crisis.

Some African leaders are standing by Mr. Abiy. Six heads of state, mostly from the region, attended his inauguration celebrations in Addis Ababa last week. But several of the congratulatory speeches included expressions of growing concern, and urged Mr. Abiy toward peace talks.

“Ethiopia is our mother,” said President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya. “If our mother is not at peace, neither can the family be at peace.”

The criticism of Mr. Abiy in the West is growing increasingly strident. Last week an essay by Mark Lowcock, a former British diplomat and until recently the U.N.’s humanitarian chief, accused Mr. Abiy of trying to starve the people of Tigray “either into subjugation or out of existence” and warned he risked causing his country to collapse.

“Abiy’s game plan cannot work,” Mr. Lowcock wrote, citing what he said was a growing expert consensus. “If he tries and fails to destroy Tigray, he will be destroyed himself. If he succeeds, he will never survive the backlash that will follow.”

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Police Search for Motive in British Lawmaker’s Killing

LONDON — The police searched for answers on Sunday about what might have motivated a 25-year-old British man of Somali heritage, the suspect in the brutal slaying of a Conservative Party lawmaker during a meeting with his constituents that has shaken Britain’s political establishment.

Scotland Yard has not yet publicly named the suspect, though British news organizations, including the BBC, have identified him as Ali Harbi Ali. Mr. Ali’s father, Harbi Ali Kullane, told The Times of London that his son was being held in custody and described himself as “very traumatized” by the accusations.

Referring to the accusations, Mr. Kullane, who once served as an adviser to Somalia’s prime minister, said in the interview with The Times, “It’s not something that I expected or even dreamt of.”

The BBC reported that several years ago, Mr. Ali had been referred to a government program known as Prevent, which aims to keep people from being drawn to extremist ideas on social media. But his name has not been on any terrorism watch lists, according to the broadcaster.

The Metropolitan Police said on Saturday that they had been granted a warrant under the Terrorism Act to keep the suspect in detention for six extra days in connection with the killing of the lawmaker, David Amess, on Friday in Leigh-on-Sea, England.

On Sunday, the police guarded a red-brick rowhouse on a tree-lined street in North London where the suspect is believed to live with his family. It was one of three addresses in London that were being searched by the police.

A next-door neighbor, Tilly Gerrard, said three young men and a woman lived in the second-floor apartment. She described them as a neighborly presence in a community where most residents recognize one another and that recently threw a street party.

Counterterrorism experts said the attack on Friday differed from those in that, according to news reports, the assailant did not harm anyone else in the room, waited for the police to arrive and arrest him, and made no attempt to confront the officers.

“It doesn’t feel like anything we have seen before,” said David Videcette, a former counterterrorism detective at Scotland Yard.

Under the terms of the Prevent program, teachers, health workers and others can notify the police of potentially radicalized individuals, and the authorities then decide whether to intervene. The program is voluntary and does not result in a legal record.

Political leaders expressed outrage about the attack but insisted that it should not endanger a tradition of accessibility and face-to-face contact with members of Parliament that is deeply ingrained in Britain’s political system.

“This is an attack on democracy,” Gordon Brown, a former prime minister, said Sunday in an interview on Sky News, “so the answer cannot be less democracy.”

Still, the killing, at midday and in full public view, has rekindled questions about the security of members of Parliament, who routinely make themselves available to constituents in monthly meetings that are advertised in advance and that can become tense when voters show up with lists of grievances.

Two other lawmakers have been attacked at such meetings in little more than a decade. One, Jo Cox, a Labour Party lawmaker, died after she was stabbed and shot by a right-wing extremist a few days before the Brexit referendum in 2016. The other, Stephen Timms, also a Labour lawmaker, was seriously wounded after being stabbed in the abdomen by an Islamic extremist in 2010.

Britain’s home secretary, Priti Patel, said the government would review security policies for lawmakers, particularly as they relate to constituent meetings, known as surgeries. But she cautioned that these measures should not prevent voters from having face-to-face access to their elected representatives.

“We’re here to serve — we’re here to be accessible to the British public,” Ms. Patel said in an interview with the BBC.

Members of the public are usually asked to sign up in advance to attend surgeries, and news reports said the suspect had done so before Friday’s meeting, which was held in a Methodist church in Leigh-on-Sea.

In an interview with Sky News, Ms. Patel said the government would also consider tightening laws on social media to cut down on abusive behavior, including by removing the right of people to post material anonymously.

In the neighborhood where the suspect is believed to live, residents expressed bewilderment about why someone would target a lawmaker in a town 40 miles away. A man passing on the street said that his younger brother had attended primary school with the suspect and that he was shocked to hear the reports.

The motive for targeting Mr. Amess, who was 69, was not clear. A soft-spoken, well-liked backbencher in the House of Commons, he was known for his staunch support of Brexit and his advocacy for animal rights.

A Catholic and social conservative, Mr. Amess was also a strong supporter of Israel and of an Iranian opposition group, Mujahedeen Khalq, or M.E.K., which campaigns for the overthrow of Iran’s government.

In London’s close-knit Somali community, reports of the attack stirred shock and unease, with some people voicing anxiety about a backlash. Though many Somali immigrants were displaced in the 1990s by the country’s civil war, the roots of the community in Britain go back generations.

“It’s very much people that are born here, and raised here,” said Kahiye Alim, the director of the Council of Somali Organizations, an umbrella group.

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Tunisians Recall Revolution Reluctantly, if at All: ‘It Just Faded Away’

LE KRAM, Tunisia — When part of one of Tunisia’s only monuments to its 2011 revolution disappeared earlier this year, not many noticed.

Some residents of Le Kram, a suburb of the capital, Tunis, say the plaque bearing the names of eight locals killed while protesting was broken off by someone with a mental illness. Others say a passing drunk was to blame.

Whatever happened, the real story is that no one bothered to fix it.

“This place wasn’t maintained, as you can see,” said Aymen Tahari, 40, the owner of the struggling plant nursery facing the monument and, as of about two weeks ago, its self-appointed caretaker. “During the first year after the revolution, there was a kind of support from everyone, but then it just faded away.”

A decade later, Tunisia remembers its uprising — which ignited the region-upending protests that came to be known as the Arab Spring, overthrew a dictator and ushered in the movement’s only remaining democracy — with a kind of reluctance bordering on hostility, the euphoria of that time stanched long ago.

This Jan. 14, the 10-year anniversary of the day the dictator, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, fled the country, there was no official tribute, only more protests over Tunisia’s no-end-in-sight economic decline.

More than remembrance, there is regret.

The revolution answered few, if any, of the hopes it raised for economic opportunity, accountability and an end to corruption, many Tunisians now say. This decade of disappointment with their elected leaders is why many Tunisians supported the events of this July, when President Kais Saied sidelined Parliament and seized power, precipitating a political crisis that still grips the country.

“The revolution is history now,” Mr. Tahari said. “Now we’re moving forward.”

In 2019, Le Kram’s mayor tried to immortalize its part in that history, choosing for the site of the memorial to those killed a roundabout ringed by a half-empty cafe, the shell of a parking garage, a car dealership and a stand hawking cheap handbags. In the middle of the roundabout is a scraggle of dried-out grass, and in the middle of the grass stands a black metal spike, the Tunisian flag flying crisply from its tip.

On a recent morning, Mr. Tahari was pacing the roundabout with one of his workers from the nursery, discussing plans to pick up the cigarette butts and water the grass.

Nobody had asked him to. But the municipality lacked the money, everybody else lacked the will, and he thought it would be a nice thing to do. He said he had not given much thought to honoring the martyrs, as Tunisians call them.

Not that he was diminishing their sacrifice. Back in 2011, he said, Ben Ali’s repression and corruption made the revolution unavoidable and bloodshed inevitable.

Yet Tunisia, once awash in clocks shaped like the number 7 in honor of the Nov. 7, 1987, coup that brought Ben Ali to power, is conspicuously lacking in monuments to those who felled him.

Officials have said such memorials had to wait for a government-approved list of the dead and wounded, which was not published until this March after a decade of pleas from the victims’ families, quarrels over who constituted a “martyr” and charges that old-regime sympathizers were obstructing the work.

What few tributes exist are put up by local governments or, often, by families at their own expense.

“We had no interest in the details of the official list,” Fathi Laayouni, the mayor of Le Kram, told an interviewer last year. “We know our martyrs very well, and we took the initiative to soothe the pain and suffering of the families.”

The memory of the revolution is constantly contested.

Tunisia’s post-revolution Truth and Dignity Commission spent years collecting evidence of crimes committed under Ben Ali and his predecessor, Habib Bourguiba, only to run into obstacles to prosecuting the perpetrators. After being removed in 2011, a statue of Bourguiba triumphant atop a horse returned in 2016 to his namesake avenue in downtown Tunis, the same street where thousands of Tunisians had chanted for Ben Ali to “Leave!”

Walking down the avenue, no one would guess that the square near the statue is supposed to be called the 14 January 2011 Square. There is no sign.

It would be easy to blame old-regime sympathizers in power. But many Tunisians have far more nostalgia for their ex-dictator than the revolution that toppled him.

If Ben Ali had kept ruling as he did in his early years in charge, “he could’ve stayed,” said Sondes Kouni, 55, from the coastal city of Sfax, who was walking through the Le Kram roundabout. She had not protested in 2011, but had, in the end, been persuaded that Ben Ali needed to go.

Those who were killed protesting “didn’t die for nothing,” she added. “But afterward, there were mistakes that weren’t supposed to happen.”

According to Mr. Tahari and many others, Tunisia’s post-revolution leaders had done next to nothing other than enrich themselves and their friends.

Perhaps none have greater cause for bitterness than the families of the dead.

Le Kram’s black spike is not the only one of the neighborhood’s memorials to the killed; a simple block of marble was first put up by their families. Inscribed with the eight names, it stands across from its taller cousin in the roundabout.

The municipality holds quiet commemoration ceremonies at the big monument, but only the families come to the small one.

“We did it so that their names remain,” said Saida el-Sifi, 63, whose son Chokri el-Sifi, a gas station worker, was 19 when he was shot in the protests.

Adorned with at least a dozen photos of Chokri large and small, the family’s home is itself a monument of sorts to him. The family moved there after his death, claiming what had been state property, and hung a plaque outside the gate proudly announcing it as the home of a revolutionary martyr.

Despite government attempts at eviction, they have been living there ever since. Ms. El-Sifi considers it her right, having sacrificed her son for Tunisia. Now she expects Mr. Saied to fulfill government promises made to families then, and never kept: To put the shooters on trial and to compensate the survivors.

“I still support the revolution, but the last 10 years, it was a mess,” she said. “We really hope Kais Saied, now he’s president, will solve the problems and save the country and bring us our justice.”

Passing the roundabout on her way home, Arbia Jneihi, 46, often pauses over the name of her husband, Nouri Sikala, a carpenter shot while protesting on Jan. 13, 2011. He was 30.

“When I see his name, I go back in history, I go back in my memories,” she said. “We could’ve had a normal life, we could’ve had kids. But everything was just a dream.”

Mr. Sikala had protested because of all the official mistreatment he had endured, she said: roughing-up from police officers, insults at the town hall. Le Kram’s streets had been full of aggrieved people like him, burning down the police station, burning tires. In some places, you could still see the marks.

But Ms. Jneihi, who has a low-level government job — one of her few survivors’ benefits — said she had joined the revolution more “to go with the flow.”

It had brought her only regret.

“I wish he hadn’t gone out. I wish the revolution hadn’t happened. I was actually, at one point, wishing I hadn’t met him at all,” she said. “We had a hope, we had a dream, but it just stayed a dream.”

For all its failed promise, however, Mr. Tahari says he still believes in the uprising’s ideals.

“We showed,” he said, “that it’s the people who have the power.”

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How a Stunning Lagoon in Spain Turned Into ‘Green Soup’

LA MANGA, Spain — The Mar Menor, a saltwater lagoon on the coast of southeastern Spain, was long renowned for its natural beauty, drawing tourists and retirees to its pristine warm shallows and the area’s gentle Mediterranean climate.

But over the past few years, the idyllic lagoon has come under threat. Tons of dead fish have washed ashore as the once-crystalline waters became choked with algae.

Scientists are divided over whether climate change — causing excessive heat that reduces oxygen levels in water — is contributing to the problem. But they agree that nitrate-filled runoffs from fertilizers from nearby farms have heavily damaged the waters where oysters and sea-horses used to thrive. But farmers in the area have balked at shouldering the blame.

Hugo Morán, a senior official in the central government’s environment ministry, estimated that 80 percent of the water contamination resulted from the unchecked growth of agriculture. He also put some of the blame on local politicians, accusing them of long downplaying the contamination and proposing unviable remedies, such as channeling plenty of the lagoon’s waters into the Mediterranean Sea.

This would only create another victim, he said.

“To heal, you first have to recognize the illness,” he said. “But what we have heard, instead, are sporadic claims by the regional government of Murcia that the Mar Menor is doing better than ever.”

Similar problems have cropped up in other parts of the world recently. Pollution, including from nitrogen-based contaminants, has been blamed for accelerating the secretion of a slimy substance called mucilage that has clogged the Sea of Marmara in Turkey. And waste produced by a nearby electricity plan and oil refinery has damaged the giant Berre lagoon in southern France.

The area around the Mar Menor, with its fertile fields and temperate year-round climate, has proved irresistible to large-scale farms, which often use ecologically damaging nitrate fertilizers. Adding to the problems, there has been extensive tourism development on the narrow, 13-mile sandbank known as La Manga, or the Sleeve, that separates the Mar Menor from the Mediterranean.

Whoever is to blame, María Victoria Sánchez-Bravo Solla, a retired schoolteacher, has had enough.

When five tons of dead fish washed up in August near her house on the lagoon, she decided that she was ready to move. She called it “an environmental disaster that should put our politicians and all those who deny responsibility for allowing this to happen to shame.”

Such mass die-offs of fish have happened a few times over the past five years, and the stench of decomposing algae, which has turned the lagoon’s waters darker and murkier, is a further sign of the ecological crisis.

Local restaurants no longer serve Mar Menor seafood and commercial fishing crews now trawl in the nearby Mediterranean instead. Few residents would even consider taking a dip in the lagoon anymore.

As the problems have intensified, so has the blame game.

The conservative administration of the Murcia region says the Spanish central government in Madrid, currently a left-wing coalition, should do more to help. Madrid says the responsibility lies at the local level.

Miriam Pérez, who is responsible for the Mar Menor in the regional government, said she believes political rivalries are keeping the central government from doing more.

“I unfortunately do think that political colors matter,” she said.

She said the central government had done little to support her right-wing administration’s cleanup efforts — including removing about 7,000 metric tonnes of biomass — mostly decomposing seaweed — even after the region issued a decree in 2019 to protect the lagoon.

In August, when another wave of dead fish washed up, scientists noted that the water temperature had climbed significantly. But in September, the Spanish Institute of Oceanography published a report that rejected the idea that excessive summer heat helped kill the fish.

Scientists instead place much of the blame with farming. In 1979, a canal was opened to carry water from the Tagus — the longest river in the Iberian Peninsula — to southeastern Spain. The canal led to irrigation, which transformed Murcia into one of Europe’s farming powerhouses, producing lettuce, broccoli, artichokes, melons and more for export across the continent.

Agriculture represents 8.5 percent of the region’s gross domestic product and provides about 47,000 jobs, according to a study published last year by the University of Alcalá, near Madrid.

But the farmers around the Mar Menor have deflected the blame, saying that the contamination comes from water seeping into the lagoon from an aquifer in which toxic substances have accumulated over decades.

Vicente Carrión, president of the local branch of COAG, an agriculture union, said that farmers were now strictly using only the amount of fertilizers needed for plants to grow.

“We are getting blamed for what went on 40 years ago” when less scrutiny was placed on agricultural practices and the authorities’ emphasis was on taking advantage of the demand from across Europe, he said.

Adolfo García, director of Camposeven, an agriculture exporter that harvests about 1,500 acres of land in the region, said that most farmers had already switched to sustainable production methods. Laggards should get government incentives to invest in green technology rather than “stones thrown by people who have no knowledge of our modern irrigation systems,” he added.

“Even if we planted nothing in this area for the next 50 years, the aquifer would remain very polluted,” he said.

But Julia Martínez, who grew up in the region and is now a biologist and technical director at Fundación Nueva Cultura del Agua, an institute that specializes in water sustainability, said that the arguments about the aquifer were a red herring. She said at least 75 percent of the lagoon’s water contamination came from runoffs.

The impact of tourism — another giant contributor to the local economy — is another problem. The Mar Menor’s hotels and restaurants are concentrated along the sandy bar of La Manga, where dozens of apartment blocks were also built, many as holiday homes. Almost every inch of the strip is developed.

Mr. Morán, the environment secretary, acknowledged that the Mar Menor had suffered from an “open bar” approach in terms of awarding building permits. But he mostly blamed fertilizer runoff from farms.

The lagoon was proof that “one of the major problems of Europe is the contamination of its waters by nitrates,” he said.

Pedro Luengo Michel, a biologist who works for Ecologistas en Acción, a Spanish environmental organization, said the farming and tourist industries have broad influence, particularly at the local level where the conservative Popular Party has governed since 1995.

“We are confronting a very powerful farming lobby which our politicians depend on to stay in power,” Mr. Luengo Michel said.

Mr. Morán said that his central government planned to use 300 million euros, or about $350 million, from the European Union’s pandemic recovery fund to protect the Mar Menor’s natural habitat and waters. The plan includes replanting vegetation close to the shores, which can stop contaminated water flowing in from neighboring fields.

For some scientists, monitoring the deterioration of the lagoon has felt like a personal tragedy.

“I remember finding it stunning as a child that I could see the sand at the bottom without even noticing the water because the Mar Menor was so transparent,” said Ms. Martínez, the biologist.

“Now, we sadly have a green soup and I certainly have long stopped swimming in it.”

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