Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has gone to direct the war effort from the front lines, state-affiliated media reported.
Deputy Prime Minister Demeke Mekonnen Hassen will take charge of routine government business in Abiy’s absence, Fana news outlet said on Wednesday.
Government spokesman Legesse Tulu detailed the transfer of some routine duties in a news conference, the report from Fana said.
Abiy announced late on Monday he was planning to personally direct the fight against Tigrayan forces and their allies.
“Let’s meet at the war front,” he wrote “The time has come to lead the country with sacrifice.”
Last month Tigrayan forces and their allies threatened to march on the capital Addis Ababa; they have also been fighting fiercely to try to cut a transport corridor linking landlocked Ethiopia with the region’s main port Djibouti.
On Tuesday, US Special Envoy Jeffrey Feltman said the Ethiopian military and regional militias had been able to hold back Tigrayan attempts to cut the corridor but Tigrayan forces had been able to move south towards Addis.
Ethiopia’s military spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment.
Tens of thousands of people are estimated to have been killed and hundreds of thousands pushed into famine conditions since November last year when the prime minister ordered a military offensive against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which dominated the central government for decades before Abiy took office in 2018.
The Tigrayan forces have continued to press towards Addis Ababa, claiming control of the town of Shewa Robit, just 220km (136 miles) northeast of the capital by road.
Much of northern Ethiopia is under a communications blackout and access for journalists is restricted, making battlefield claims difficult to corroborate.
At least one prominent distance runner – marathoner and Olympic silver medallist Feyisa Lelisa – has joined thousands of ordinary Ethiopians keen to follow Abiy’s lead.
World powers have voiced alarm about a military escalation that could scuttle efforts to broker a ceasefire, as rebels claim they are advancing towards the capital Addis Ababa and foreign governments tell their citizens to leave.
On Wednesday hundreds of new army recruits took part in a ceremony held in their honour in the Kolfe district of Addis Ababa.
As officials corralled sheep and oxen into trucks bound for the north, the recruits broke into patriotic songs and chants.
“I was amazed when I heard” Abiy planned to join soldiers in the field, one of the recruits, 42-year-old driver Tesfaye Sherefa, told AFP.
“When a leader leaves his chair… and his throne it is to rescue his country. His focus is not to live, but to rescue this country, and I sobbed when he said ‘follow me’ and went to the front line.”
Abiy announced on Monday night his plan “to lead the defence forces” from the front, but officials and state media have not provided details on his movements since then.
The recruits in Kolfe nevertheless took his statement to heart, sporting T-shirts emblazoned with a picture of Abiy in uniform and the words “We have a historic responsibility to defend the free name of Ethiopia.”
“I feel proud and I stand with him,” 25-year-old Esubalew Wale, another recruit, told AFP.
Feyisa, the distance runner, told state media the rebels’ advance presented “a great opportunity” to defend the country.
The marathoner gained political prominence by raising and crossing his arms as he finished the marathon at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro – a gesture of solidarity with fellow ethnic Oromos killed while protesting abuses committed during nearly three decades of TPLF rule.
In the state media interview which aired Wednesday, Feyisa said he would relish the chance to fight the TPLF himself.
“When a country is violated, there is no way I will stand by and just watch,” he said.
A separate state media report quoted Ethiopia’s most famous distance-running champion, Haile Gebreselassie, as saying he, too, would fight at the front.
But footage of the interview did not air and AFP could not independently verify it.