Ethiopian federal forces have taken “full control” of the Tigray region’s capital Mekelle, military chief of staff Birhanu Jula said in a statement posted on the military’s official Facebook page on Saturday night.
Authorities had previously said the government forces were in the final stages of an offensive in the region and would take care of protecting civilians in Mekelle, a city of 500,000 people.
There was no immediate comment from the Tigrayan forces in the northern region who have been fighting government forces.
Allegations from all quarters are difficult to verify because communication links to the region have been down and access has been carefully controlled.
Thousands have been killed since the fighting began on November 4, when Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed – the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner – ordered military operations against Tigray’s ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
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Tens of thousands more have flowed across the border into Sudan and migration within the Tigray is believed to be widespread.
Eritrea dras in
Earlier on Saturday, the regional government of Tigray Abiy accused it of collaborating with Isaias Afwerki, president of the neighborhood of Eritrea, for the attack on Mekele.
“The regional state of Tigray wants it to be known to both friends and enemies that it will provide a proportionate response to the massacres and property damage done by these fascists,” it said.
Ethiopia has denied using Eritrean military support against Tigray but has acknowledged using Eritrean territory.
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Residents of the border town of Humera in western Tigray told AFP that shells fired from Eritrea affected both residential and commercial structures during the fighting earlier this month.
At least one rocket fired from Tigray was aimed at the Eritrean capital Asmara on Friday night, regional diplomats told AFP. No deaths or injuries were reported.
TPLF claimed responsibility for rockets fired at Asmara two weeks ago, but there was no immediate claim of responsibility for the latest attack.
The TPLF dominated Ethiopian politics for almost three decades before Abiy came to power in 2018 and fought a brutal border war with Eritrea that killed tens of thousands between 1998 and 2000.
Abiy won his Nobel largely to begin a rapprochement with Isaiah 2018.
Concern for civilians
Global concern about the conflict has increased in recent days with world leaders and human rights groups warning of possible rules of war.
The UN has spent weeks lobbying – so far without success – for full access to Tigray.
Abiy’s office said this week that it would open a “humanitarian access road”. Hundreds of UN and international NGO workers are currently in Mekele, but they are struggling with a shortage of food, cash and other items.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said it had received “1,300 requests from people in Ethiopia and abroad who want to contact their relatives frantically”, adding: “We know this is just the tip of the iceberg.”
Pope Francis on Saturday tweeted for “everyone to pray for #Ethiopia where armed conflicts have intensified and are causing a serious humanitarian situation”.
Abiy’s government has said the military campaign in Tigray was triggered by attacks by pro-TPLF forces on federal army camps in Tigray in early November.
Abiy has repeatedly abolished international calls to stop fighting and negotiations with TPLF leaders, saying they must be disarmed and arrested.
On Friday, he met with three former African leaders – Joaquim Chissano from Mozambique, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf from Liberia and Kgalema Motlanthe in South Africa – sent by the African Union as mediators.
A statement from the AU said Abiy had told envoys that military operations in Tigray “would not last long”.
The military expects to take control of Mekele “within days”, according to a report Saturday from state-affiliated Fana Broadcasting Corporate.
( Jowharwith AFP and REUTERS)