Ethiopian troops will launch a “final and conclusive” offensive against rebel forces in the northern region of Tigray before the end of the week, the country’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, has said.
In a series of social media posts on Tuesday, Abiy said that a three-day deadline for rebel troops to surrender had expired, paving the way for a final push on Mekelle, Tigray’s capital.
Abiy is under increasing pressure from African countries and international powers to end the two-week conflict, amid fears that the war will destabilise Ethiopia and the fragile Horn of Africa region.
Since he launched military operations in Tigray 13 days ago, hundreds of people have been killed and tens of thousands displaced. As many as 25,000 refugees have arrived in Sudan.
Four thousand refugees have been arriving every day, a “very rapid” rate, UN refugee agency spokesman Babar Baloch told reporters in Geneva. “It’s a huge number in a matter of days … It overwhelms the whole system,” he said, warning of a “full-scale humanitarian crisis”.
That remote part of Sudan has not had such an influx in two decades, he added.
At the weekend, Tigrayan forces fired missiles into the neighbouring country of Eritrea in an apparent attempt to internationalise the conflict and force outside intervention to bring it to an end.
The United Nations, the African Union and others have called for talks, but Abiy has resisted, saying the war in Tigray was irreversible and aimed at “enforcing the rule of law”.
Diplomats in Addis Ababa say Abiy is determined to oust the leaders of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPFL), the ruling party in Tigray, and impose a new government before ending the conflict.
But military experts say there is a significant risk that Ethiopian national troops could be drawn into a long and brutal guerrilla war against battle-hardened Tigrayans who are fighting in their mountainous homeland.
Ethiopian troops are believed to have taken control of the town of Alamata, six miles into Tigray from Amhara, the neighbouring province that is loyal to the central government and a launchpad for the offensive. Mekelle, the Tigrayan capital, is 110 miles further north through rugged terrain.
“The three-day ultimatum given to Tigray special forces and the militia to surrender to the national defence … have ended today. Following the expiration of this deadline, the final critical act of law enforcement will be done in the coming days,” Abiy said in a statement posted on Facebook.
There was no immediate comment from Tigray’s leaders.
The warning came after air raids by government troops outside Mekelle.
The violence has raised international concern over the willingness of Abiy, who won the Nobel peace prize last year, to risk a lengthy civil war against well-armed forces in the region.
Though only 7 million people live in Tigray out of a total Ethiopian population of 110 million, much of the government troops’ equipment is kept in the province and Tigrayan forces could dig in as the military advanced into the more mountainous terrain towards Mekelle.
“I would guess as the Ethiopian army enter the highlands, heavier fighting is likely to start,” Matt Bryden, the founder of Sahan, a Nairobi-based regional thinktank, told Reuters.
With communications mostly down and media barred, it is not possible to independently verify assertions made by any side.The exact position of individual military units is also unclear.
Tigrayan leaders had accused the government of targeting a sugar factory and a dam.
Abiy launched military operations after he accused local authorities of attacking a military camp and attempting to loot military assets. The TPLF denies the charge and has accused the prime minister of concocting the story to justify the offensive.
Debretsion Gebremichael, the leader of the TPLF, has called on the United Nations and African Union to condemn the offensive, accusing federal troops of “waging this war on the people of Tigray” with attacks on civilian infrastructure.
“We are not the initiators of this conflict and it is evident that Abiy Ahmed conducted this war as an attempt to consolidate his personal power,” he added, saying Ethiopia could become a failed state or disintegrate.
On Monday, Abiy sent his foreign minister to Uganda and Kenya to explain what the government describes as an internal conflict to leaders of those countries. Ethiopian officials said the visits did not mean negotiations had started.
Abiy was appointed leader of the ruling coalition of Ethiopia and so prime minister in 2018.
Though his sweeping reforms won widespread praise, they have allowed old ethnic and other grievances to surface.
The TPLF dominated Ethiopia’s governing coalition for decades before Abiy came to power, and Tigrayan leaders complained of being unfairly targeted in corruption prosecutions, removed from top positions and blamed for the country’s problems.
The postponement of national elections owing to the Covid-19 pandemic aggravated tensions and when parliamentarians in Addis Ababa voted to extend officials’ mandates, Tigrayan leaders went ahead with regional elections in September that Abiy’s government deemed illegal.
Ethiopia, Africa’s second most populous country, has long been a diplomatic heavyweight and corner stone of western policy in a region suffering extensive conflict, humanitarian need and extremism.