The battle for Mekelle commences

Tigray leader says Ethiopian offensive on regional capital of Mekelle has begun

ADDIS ABABA/NAIROBI (Reuters) – The leader of rebellious forces in Tigray region said on Saturday that Ethiopian government forces had began an offensive to capture the regional capital, Mekelle.

Debretsion Gebremichael, leader of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) told Reuters in a text message Mekelle was under “heavy bombardment”.

Billene Seyoum, a spokeswoman for the Prime Minister’s office, said that Ethiopian forces would not “bombard” civilian areas, adding “the safety of Ethiopians in Mekelle and Tigray region continues as priority for the federal government.”

Debretsion also accused the military of the neighbouring nation of Eritrea of raiding refugee camps in Tigray to capture refugees who had fled Eritrea.

Reuters was not immediately able to get comment from the Eritrean government.

Claims from all sides are difficult to verify since phone and internet links to the region have been down and access tightly controlled since fighting began three weeks ago between forces of the government and the TPLF.

Ethiopian forces will take Tigrayan capital in coming days, military says

Federal forces seized control of Wikro, a town 50 km (30 miles) north of Mekelle and “will control Mekelle in a few days”, Lieutenant-General Hassan Ibrahim said in a statement. Government troops had also taken control of several other towns, he said.

Reuters was not immediately able to reach the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) for comment, or to verify the statement.

Claims by all sides in the three-week-old conflict between government and TPLF forces have been impossible to verify because phone and internet connections to the region are down and access to the area is tightly controlled.

On Friday evening in the neighbouring country of Eritrea, “a loud noise, possibly an explosion” was heard in the capital Asmara, the U.S. Embassy there said in a statement early on Saturday.

Reuters has not been able to reach Eritrean government official for more than two weeks. TPLF rockets hit neighbouring Eritrea on Nov. 14.

The Ethiopian military has been fighting rebellious local forces in the northern region of Tigray, which borders Eritrea and Sudan.

Thousands of people are believed to have died and there has been widespread destruction from aerial bombardment and ground fighting since the war began. Around 43,000 refugees have fled to Sudan.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed accuses Tigrayan leaders of starting the war by attacking federal troops at a base in Tigray on Nov. 4. The TPLF says the attack was a pre-emptive strike.

The government gave the TPLF an ultimatum last Sunday to lay down arms or face an assault on Mekelle, a city of 500,000 people, raising fears among aid groups of extensive civilian casualties. The ultimatum expired on Wednesday.

Abiy, who announced on Thursday that the military was beginning the “final phase” of its offensive, told African peace envoys on Friday that his government will protect civilians in Tigray.

But a statement issued by the prime minister’s office after their meeting made no mention of talks with the TPLF to end fighting. It also did not mention any plans for further discussions with them.

LETTER TO ENVOYS

On Friday, a letter was sent to embassies in Addis Ababa warning defence attaches that they risked expulsion if they were in contact with unnamed enemies of Ethiopia.

“Some military attaches are working with those who endangered the security of the country, identified in blacklist and sought by attorney of the court,” said the letter. The letter was stamped by Brigadier-General Boultie Tadesse of the Defence Foreign Relations Directorate, on the copy of shown to Reuters.

“We will expel those who do not refrain from their actions who are in contact with those extremist group.”

A military spokesman and the head of the government’s Tigray taskforce did not respond to requests for comment.

Billene Seyoum, a spokeswoman for the prime minister’s office, said she could not address questions about the letter, including whether it was referring to the TPLF, without seeing the original document.

Tigrayans, who make up about 6% of Ethiopia’s 115 million population, dominated the government until Abiy took power two years ago.

Abiy pledged to unite Ethiopians and introduce freedoms after years of state repression that filled jails with tens of thousands of political prisoners. His government also put senior Tigrayan officials on trial for crimes such as corruption, torture and murder. The Tigrayan region saw those trials as discrimination.

Abiy’s reforms created more political space but also lifted the lid on long-repressed tensions over land and resources.

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