Ethiopian military officials have warned civilians in Mekelle, the capital of the troubled Tigray region, to “break free” from rebel leaders or offer “no mercy” in an upcoming assault on the city.
The Ethiopian army said tanks would be deployed to surround Mekelle, the highland capital of the northern region of Tigray, and that it could also use artillery in the city, state media reported Sunday.
The ultimatum will deepen international concerns as the conflict enters its third week with no sign that hostilities will soon cease.
Ethiopian forces advance steadily from the north and south towards Mekelle, which is located on a plateau at an altitude of more than 2,500 meters.
So far, hundreds, possibly thousands, of people have died in the conflict and many more have been displaced. More than 36,000 have fled to neighboring Sudan and large numbers are moving into Tigray to avoid the fighting.
The warning to the half million inhabitants of Mekelle may lead many to flee their homes, adding to the growing humanitarian crisis.
“The next phases are the decisive part of the operation, which consists of surrounding Mekelle with tanks, ending the battle in the mountainous areas and moving towards the fields,” Colonel Dejene Tsegaye told the state-owned Ethiopia Broadcasting Corporation.
Tsegaye said the Ethiopian army had so far avoided any targets that could risk civilian casualties, but said that in the case of Mekelle “it could be different.”
“We want to send a message to the public in Mekelle to save ourselves from any artillery attack and free ourselves from the junta,” he said, referring to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the ruling party in the region. “The board is now shielding itself from the public and the public must isolate itself from the board. After that, there will be no mercy. “
Redwan Hussein, spokesman for the government task force in Tigray, said there was still time for the TPLF leadership to surrender. “The government will take the utmost restraint so as not to cause greater risks to civilians,” he added.
Debretsion Gebremichael, the leader of the TPLF, told Reuters by text message that his forces were defending Mekelle.
“Surrounding Mekelle is their plan, but they still couldn’t,” he said. “On the southern front, they couldn’t move an inch for more than a week. They [are] sending wave after wave, but to no avail. “
Officials in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, have made it clear that the “law enforcement operation” will continue until the TPLF is overthrown and federal authority over the region is reasserted.
On Saturday, the Ethiopian government rejected an African diplomatic push to mediate.
Last week, Abiy Ahmed, the Ethiopian prime minister, said government forces were preparing for a “final push” on Mekelle to end the conflict in a few days.
However, a confidential United Nations assessment of the military situation in Tigray and seen by The Guardian suggests that Ethiopian national forces are meeting stronger resistance than official communications have made clear and may face a protracted “war.” wear “in Tigray.
Although heavily armed regular troops have continued to advance steadily towards Mekelle, paramilitaries and militia deployed in their wake are still fighting to clear and secure the territory, the assessment says, raising the possibility of a long guerrilla war to come.
“Although the regional Tigray forces may have initially been pushed back by the rapid advances of the EDF, the terrain in eastern Tigray is easier to defend … and if they hold firm they have the ability to stop the advance of the EDF, “says one analysis, warning that this will then” shift the dimension of the conflict from a fast move to one of attrition, “he says.
Information has been difficult to obtain and confirm, with communications cut to Tigray and journalists banned.
Both sides said federal forces seized Adigrat, 72 miles (116 kilometers) north of Mekelle over the weekend.
The TPLF claimed that nine civilians had been killed in a shelling in Adigrat, which the party appeared to blame on federal forces firing from across the border in Eritrea.
The Abiy army and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki “inflicted many casualties on innocent civilians in Adigrat,” the TPLF communications office said in a statement on Facebook.
Ethiopian officials said resistance to federal forces was strongest on the highway leading to Mekelle from the south, along which rebels destroyed bridges and planted concealed explosives.
The war is the culmination of months of mounting tensions between the TPLF and the ruling coalition in Addis Ababa. When national elections were canceled due to the pandemic, the TPLF held elections anyway, in a move that compounded tensions.
Abiy, who is Africa’s youngest leader and won the Nobel Peace Prize last year, launched his operation after accusing the TPLF of attacking a military camp and trying to seize military equipment.
Ethiopian planes have launched airstrikes and Tigrayans have fired missiles at Amhara and Eritrea, which has supported the offensive to eliminate the TPLF. At least one massacre has been reported: it has been attributed to the withdrawal of the Tigrayan militia against a community considered loyal to the central government, but there is no confirmation of this.
There is concern that even if Abiy succeeds in expelling the TPLF and imposing federal authority over Tigray, the violence will continue.
Although they number just 6 million out of a total of 110 million people living in Africa’s second most populous country, the Tigrayans effectively ruled Ethiopia for decades. Until Abiy took power two years ago, they were the most powerful force in a multi-ethnic coalition. Abiy, whose parents belong to the larger ethnic groups in Oromo and Amhara, released thousands of political prisoners and vowed to end the domination of one ethnic group.
“Even if the EDF succeeds in its mission to take Mekelle,” the UN assessment warns, “this will not necessarily end the conflict. A protracted asymmetric conflict and insurgency are likely to continue. From a humanitarian perspective, the longer the conflict continues, the more serious the crisis will be. “
On Saturday, Abiy said on Twitter that the safety and well-being of the people of Tigray was of the utmost importance and that the federal government would do everything possible to “ensure that stability prevails in the Tigray region and that our citizens are free from damages and necessities “.
The government-appointed head of a recently appointed interim administration for Tigray, academic Mulu Nega, said new local elections were planned to restore peace in the region once the TPLF leaders were overthrown.
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