The leader of Ethiopia’s dissident Tigray region has said his people are “ready to die” and are defending their homeland, rejecting Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s ultimatum that they surrender within 72 hours.
Abiy launched a military campaign against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) on November 4, accusing it of attacking two federal military camps in the northern region, as well as defying and attempting to destabilize his government.
The Federal Army says its forces are within 60 kilometers (37 miles) of Mekele, Tigray’s capital and headquarters of the TPLF, before a threatened total bombing of the city of half a million people.
Abiy – last year’s winner of the Nobel Peace Prize – on Sunday called on the TPLF to surrender peacefully within three days, saying they were “at a point of no return”.
But TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael said Abiy was trying to cover up for adversity his army had suffered against Tigrayan forces and issued threats to buy time.
“He does not understand who we are. We are people of principle and ready to die to defend our right to manage our region,” Debretsion told AFP via WhatsApp on Monday.
A communication shutdown in the region has made claims from both sides difficult to verify.
“No mercy” hot
Brigadier General Tesfaye Ayalew, quoted by state-run Fana Broadcasting Corporate on Monday, said federal troops “marched into Mekele” after capturing key cities in the north and south.
The army has threatened a “no mercy” tank attack on the TPLF leadership in Mekele, warned civilians to leave while they still can, raising concerns among rights activists.
“Treating an entire city as a military target would not only (be) illegal, it could also be considered a form of collective punishment,” Human Rights Watch researcher Laetitia Bader wrote on Twitter.
Abiy has called on the people of Mekele to join the national army against the TPLF, “to bring this treacherous group to justice”.
Hundreds of people are reported to have been killed during nearly three weeks of fighting, which has seen warplanes bomb the region and tanks enter the battle.
Amnesty International also documented a brutal massacre in which “points and probably hundreds” of people were stabbed and hacked to death in the southwestern city of Mai-Kadra.
Over 40,000 Ethiopians have meanwhile fled west to Sudan and rockets have hit Eritrea in the north, spurring fears that the internal conflict risks instability outside its borders.
The UN Security Council will hold its first meeting on the conflict in Tigray, diplomatic sources said late Monday.
Tuesday’s virtual meeting will not be open to the public, they said, and it was not yet clear if a statement would be issued afterwards.
In Bahir Dar, the capital of the Amhara region south of Tigray, two witnesses told AFP on Monday that rockets had hit the city, the third time it has sustained shelling since the fighting began.
“Three rockets fell on the city near the airport area. We do not know about deaths or injuries,” said a witness who asked not to be named.
There was no immediate response from the government or any claim for responsibility.
The TPLF claimed responsibility for previous rocket attacks on Bahir Dar and Gondar, another city in Amhara, as well as Eritrea’s capital Asmara.
Abiy late Sunday accused Tigrayan forces of destroying key infrastructure in their retreat from the fighting, including the airport in the city of Axum and schools, bridges, medical centers and roads.
Pictures sent by Ethiopian authorities on Monday showed what appeared to be deep tracks and damage to the asphalt at Axum.
Abiy has resisted international pressure to stop the fighting, including from the African Union (AU), and describes the campaign as a “law enforcement operation” against a “treacherous group” which is now entering its final phase.
Redwan Hussein, a spokesman for an Ethiopian conflict resolution committee, said the government would meet with envoys sent by the AU “as a matter of respect” but completely ruled out talks with the TPLF.
“Facts on the ground have changed, and we have come to the end,” he told reporters on Monday.
The TPLF led the armed struggle that overthrew the brutal Derg regime in 1991 and controlled the coalition that took over and ruled Ethiopia for almost three decades until Abiy was appointed in 2018.
Since then, Tigrayan leaders have complained that they were unjustly targeted at corruption, removed from top positions and largely a scapegoat for the country’s misery.