ADDIA ABABA (REUTERS) - Ethiopian Olympic gold medallist and national hero Haile Gebrselassie pledged on Wednesday to join the fight against rebellious forces in his country, after the nation's prime minister said he had gone to direct the war from the front lines.
The 48-year-old retired champion, who set 27 long-distance running records, told Reuters that he felt compelled to join up because Ethiopia's existence was under threat.
Local media reported that Olympic silver medallist runner Feyisa Lelisa was also signing up.
Gebrselassie, his lithe, athletic frame dressed in business attire, said he believed sport was about "peace and love". He defended his decision to join the fight against rebellious Tigrayan forces and their allies, who last month threatened to march on the capital Addis Ababa.
"What would you do when the existence of a country is at stake? You just put down everything. Alas, nothing will bind you. I am sorry!" he said.
The year-long conflict has killed thousands of people, forced more than two million more from their homes and left 400,000 people in the region of Tigray, which is bordered by Eritrea, facing famine.
The war has escalated sharply after the threat by rebellion forces, comprising many defectors from the Ethiopian National Defence Force, to march on the capital, leading to international efforts to broker a ceasefire.
On Wednesday, state-affiliated media reported that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed had left for the front lines, and foreign governments like Britain have already urged their nationals to leave Ethiopia immediately.
While there has been no independent confirmation of the claim amid a media blackout, fighting is set to move closer to the capital in the coming days.
Gebrselassie has cast the conflict as a battle in which the threat to Ethiopia was a threat to all of Africa.
He said: "Ethiopia is a country that contributed a lot to Africa and the entire continent. Yes, it is an exemplary country. Kneeling Ethiopia is indirectly kneeling the rest. This is impossible."
In an interview in his office in the capital, where he runs more than a dozen companies engaged in hospitality, real estate, agriculture and education, he also spoke of the role he was willing to play in the war.
"You expect me to say until death? Yes, that is the ultimate price in a war," he said.
"There is no way that I can sit here due to fear because it will come to my door. It will come to my house. We wouldn't know when it comes. We wouldn't know who will do what."