Air strikes and ground combat have killed hundreds, sent refugees flooding into Sudan, stirred Ethiopia’s ethnic divisions and raised questions over the credentials of Abiy, Africa’s youngest leader who won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2019.
“The western region of Tigray has been liberated,” tweeted Abiy, 44, who comes from the largest ethnic group the Oromo and once fought with the Tigrayans against neighbouring Eritrea.
“The army is now providing humanitarian assistance and services. It is also feeding the people,” he added.
With communications down and media barred, independent verification of the status of the conflict was impossible.
The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which rules the mountainous northern state of more than 5 million people, announced a local state of emergency against what it termed an “invasion by outsiders”.
Abiy accuses the TPLF of starting the conflict by attacking a federal military base and defying his authority, while the Tigrayans say his two-year rule has persecuted them.
The premier said some of his soldiers had been found dead in the town of Sheraro, shot with their legs and arms tied behind their back. “This kind of cruelty is heartbreaking,” he said.
He did not say how many bodies were found or provide proof. Reuters could not verify his allegation and there was no immediate response from the TPLF, which has accused federal troops of being “merciless” in bombing Tigrayans.
More than 10,000 Ethiopian refugees have crossed into Sudan since fighting started and aid agencies say the situation in Tigray is becoming dire. Even before the conflict, 600,000 people there were reliant on food aid.
The United Nations’ Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said aid agencies were unable to restock food, health and other emergency supplies due to lack of access.
“Shortages of basic commodities are reportedly appearing, impacting the most vulnerable first and the most,” it said.
ARRESTS AND PROTESTS
The United Nations’ refugee agency’s representative in Ethiopia, Ann Encontre, told Reuters negotiations were under way with both sides for humanitarian corridors to be opened.
A “major emergency” may be brewing with so many people escaping to Sudan, she warned. About two dozen vehicles of non-essential U.N. and other workers were pulling out of Tigray and returning to the capital Addis Ababa in convoy.
Abiy has so far resisted calls by the United Nations, the African Union and others for a ceasefire and talks.
His army chief of staff Birhanu Jula was quoted by state-affiliated Fana broadcaster as saying that the federal troops’ Northern Command had survived a five-day siege and was recapturing places including Dansha, Humera airport and Baeker.
“I would like to thank these members of the army for being a model of our heroic defence force and their persistent battle, though deprived of food and water for four or five days,” he said, accusing the TPLF of using people as a human shield.
There was no immediate response to that accusation.
The army said transitional rule would be set up in parts controlled by federal troops and urged local forces to surrender or fight the Tigrayan leadership.
“We are determined that this (TPLF) force has to either surrender or be destroyed,” said Belay Seyoum, head of the powerful Northern Command unit, which some Tigrayans are thought to have defected from so as not to fight their own people.
In a wider push against the TPLF, Ethiopia’s parliament stripped 39 members, including Tigray regional president Debretsion Gebremichael, of immunity from prosecution.
And the government’s newly formed State of Emergency task force for Tigray said about 150 “criminal” operatives for the TPLF had been arrested in the capital Addis Ababa and elsewhere on suspicion of planning “terror attacks”.
There are fears of reprisals against Tigrayans living around Ethiopia. Thousands marched in anti-TPLF protests in the Oromia, Somali and Afar regions, Fana reported, in what appeared to be a government-backed attempt to win the propaganda war over Tigray.
Reporting by Giulia Paravicini in Addis Ababa, Khalid Abdelaziz in Khartoum, Nazanine Moshiri in Nairobi; Writing by Duncan Miriri and Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by William Maclean