Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed says the military will begin the final phase of its full-scale offensive in the northern Tigray region, where rebel forces have missed Addis Ababa’s deadline to surrender.
Tigray has been engulfed in bloody fighting since November 4, when the prime minister announced the launch of military operations against the regional government there.
The announcement led to a dramatic escalation of a long-running feud between the federal government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the region’s ruling party, which dominated Ethiopian politics for almost three decades before the incumbent prime minister assumed power in 2018.
Abiy, the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize 2019, has accused the rebel forces loyal to the TPLF of launching deadly attacks on a pair of federal military camps in the region. He has also accused the party of defying his government and seeking to undermine it.
“The 72-hour period granted to the criminal TPLF clique to surrender peacefully is now over and our law enforcement campaign has reached its final stage,” the prime minister said in a statement on Thursday.
The final phase of the offensive is aimed at taking back the rebel-held Mekelle, the capital of the restive region, which is now surrounded by government forces, according to Abiy.
“In this final phase, great care will be given to protect innocent civilians from harm. All efforts will be made to ensure that the city of Mekelleâ€¦ will not be severely damaged,” he said.
Mekelle is home to some 500,000 people.
“We call on the people of Mekelle and its environs to disarm, stay at home, and stay away from military targets [and] to do their part in reducing damages to be sustained because of a handful of criminal elements,” Abiy further said.
The Ethiopian military had earlier this week warned of “no mercy” if the residents of Mekelle did not distance themselves from the TPLF.
Separately on Thursday, the United Nations (UN) warned that shortages had become “very critical” in the Tigray region, whose six million inhabitants remain sealed off.
Abiy has so far spurned all calls by the UN, the African Union, and various countries to hold talks with the armed rebels in Tigray.
The fighting has reportedly claimed the lives of thousands of people and displaced thousands of others, who have fled across Ethiopia’s northern border into neighboring Sudan.
The fighting has not been confined to Tigray. The TPLF has previously fired rockets at Asmara, the capital of neighboring Eritrea, to the north and the city of Bahir Dar to the southwest. The rebels accuse Eritrea of supporting Abiy’s government.