NAIROBI, Kenya — Catholic bishops in Ethiopia urged the government and armed soldiers in the semi-autonomous region of Tigray in the country’s north to immediately end fighting and begin peace negotiations as concerns grew over the conflict’s potential to descend into civil war.

The bishops spoke as a military offensive against the region ordered by Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed entered its sixth day Nov. 9. Abiy’s order followed an attack on an Ethiopian army base in the Tigrayan capital, Mekelle.

According to reports, armies from the two sides were fighting and producing casualties, including at least six deaths, but news from the region was limited Nov. 9.

“We, the Catholic Bishops of Ethiopia urge both parties to immediately stop the armed conflict and start peaceful dialogue for the benefit of the people and resolve their differences in the spirit of understanding, mutual respect and trust,” Cardinal Berhaneyesus Souraphiel of Addis Ababa, president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Ethiopia, said in a statement.

In Ethiopia’s ethnic federalism, states have significant autonomy to establish security forces, a parliament and right to a referendum on self-rule. Since the 1990s, the country has been ruled by the Ethiopia People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, or EPRDF, which is dominated by the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front. However, Ahmed dissolved the EPRDF and concentrated power on the new Prosperity Party, triggering tensions in the region.

The conflict escalated in September after Tigrayans held elections that had been postponed nationwide because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Souraphiel said the bishops had closely followed developments in the region and were saddened by the armed conflict, that has led to deaths, displacement of people and destruction of property.

“Conflict between brotherly people does not help anyone. Instead, it destroys lives of innocent people and it is an act that will turn our country into a failure and (create) extreme poverty,” the statement said. The cardinal regretted that attempts by religious leaders, elders and other stakeholders to negotiate a truce had not succeeded.

Montfort Father Andrew Kaufa, communications coordinator for the Association of Member Episcopal Conferences in Eastern Africa, told Catholic News Service the bishops of the region are “trying to understand the situation and what the church on the ground is doing so that we can offer our support.”

Abiy has ignored calls from the United Nations and others to negotiate.

Although Abiy has said the war will be brief, analysts fear Africa’s second most populous nation is on the brink of a prolonged civil war. Observers have said that the Tigrayans are well-armed and have been hardened by an earlier rebel war.