Ethiopia declared a state of emergency on Tuesday and called on its citizens to pick up arms and prepare to defend the capital as rebel forces from the northern region of Tigray pressed south toward the city following the capture of two key towns.
The Tigrayans, who have been fighting the government for the past year, have joined forces with another rebel group as they advance on the capital, Addis Ababa. Foreign officials monitoring the fighting said there were signs that several Ethiopian Army units had collapsed or retreated.
The state of emergency reflected the rapidly changing tide in a metastasizing war that threatens to tear apart Ethiopia, Africa’s second-most populous country.
It also marked another dismal turn in the fortunes of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, a Nobel Peace Prize winner whose international reputation has been battered by a war that has led to reports of human rights violations, massacres and famine.
One year ago, in the early hours of Nov. 4, Mr. Abiy launched a military campaign in the northern Tigray region, hoping to vanquish the regional ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front — his most troublesome political foe. But after promising a swift, even bloodless campaign, Mr. Abiy was quickly drawn into a military quagmire.
In a milestone in the yearlong conflict, the government called on civilians to arm themselves and defend Addis Ababa after Tigrayan forces captured two towns nearby.
The Ethiopian military suffered a major defeat in June when it was forced to withdraw from Tigray, and several thousand of its soldiers were taken captive. Now the fighting is rapidly moving toward Mr. Abiy.
In recent days, Tigrayan rebels took the towns of Dessie and Kombolcha, just 160 miles to the northeast of the capital. A United Nations official said the Tigrayan forces were seen moving farther south from Kombolcha on Tuesday.
Under the state of emergency, Mr. Abiy has sweeping powers to arrest and detain critics, impose curfews and restrict the news media. Any citizen over 18 could be called into the fight, Justice Minister Gedion Timothewos told a news conference.
“Those who own weapons will be obliged to hand them over to the government,” he said. The state of emergency will last six months, the government said.
Hours earlier, the city administration in Addis Ababa had called on citizens to use their weapons to defend their neighborhoods. House-to-house searches were being conducted in search of Tigrayan sympathizers, it said in a statement.
The announcements added to a growing sense of trepidation in the city, where tensions have been building for days as news filtered in of Tigrayan military advances. A taxi driver named Dereje, who in the capital’s tense climate refused to give his second name, said he intended to join in the fight.
“I am not going to sit in my house and wait for the enemy,” he said. “I will fight for my kids and my country.”
But a teacher, who declined to give his name, said he had lost faith in the Ethiopian government. “They lied to us that T.P.L.F. have been defeated,” he said, referring to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. “I am terribly worried about what is going to happen. May God help us.”
President Biden, who has threatened to impose sanctions on Ethiopia unless it moves toward peace talks, said Tuesday he would revoke trade privileges for Ethiopia, including duty-free access to the United States because of “gross violations of internationally recognized human rights.”