Ethiopia’s prime minister has claimed that the Western Tigray region has been “liberated” after a week of fighting, while United Nations agencies warn of a dire humanitarian situation worsening by the day.
“The Western region of Tigray has been liberated,” Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said on Twitter on Thursday.
“The army is now providing humanitarian assistance and services. It is also feeding the people,” he said.
With communications down and media barred, independent verification of the status of the conflict was impossible.
Fears over a spiralling conflict are mounting since the federal government’s decision to embark last week on a military campaign after it accused the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which rules the mountainous northern state, of attacking sections of federal military stations.
“The fighting is still going on between ground troops on both sides, with air strikes targeting fuel and arms depots that have caused significant casualties on both sides,” said Al Jazeera’s Mohammed Adow, reporting from the capital Addis Ababa.
“The government said it will not stop the operation until it reaches its objectives of ensuring that TPLF are disarmed, their leadership brought to justice and any fugitives apprehended,” Adow said.
Abiy 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.
His allegation could not be verified and there was no immediate response from the TPLF.
On Thursday the TPLF announced a local state of emergency against what it termed an “invasion by outsiders,” while accusing federal troops of being “merciless” in bombing Tigrayans.
Tigray’s president Debretsion Gebremichael, who is chairman of the TPLF, told Reuters news agency that government air strikes had killed an unspecified number of civilians in recent days and promised to defend his people until federal authorities realise “we cannot be subjugated by their knife”.
“The way I see it from the prime minister, I don’t think peace will come soon, because he believes that he can crush us, he believes he can do everything by his armed forces,” Debretsion said.
Debretsion said he could not give further details on the air strikes. Reuters was not able to independently verify his assertions on civilian casualties or determine which side initiated the attacks.
Meanwhile, telephone lines to the region were still down, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said in its report on the crisis on Thursday, thwarting aid operations which are unable to restock food, health and other emergency supplies.
“Transport is not allowed to and from Tigray, as a result of which shortages of basic commodities are reportedly appearing, impacting the most vulnerable first and the most,” the UN agency said.
Addis Ababa’s military move came after months of feuding between the federal government and the TPLF, a party that dominated Ethiopia’s politics for nearly three decades until Abiy came to power in 2018.
The operation might be further extended, according to William Davison, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group.
“The existing strong regional security apparatus in Tigray, combined with the region’s history of resistance and fighting battles, raises the concern that – despite the advantages of the federal government – we might actually see a protracted conflict that could well last weeks and quite possibly months,” Davison told Al Jazeera.
“It could be devastating for Tigray,” he said.
About 11,000 people have crossed from Ethiopia to Sudan fleeing the conflict since fighting started, and an estimated 50 percent of them are children, a representative for the UN refugee agency said on Thursday.
“They are coming with very, very little possessions and while most of them have come in in a healthy condition, we have had information on some who have been injured,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees representative Axel Bisschop told reporters in a virtual briefing.
Aid agencies say the situation in Tigray was becoming dire. Even before the conflict, 600,000 people there were reliant on food aid.
In a wider push against the TPLF, Ethiopia’s parliament on Thursday stripped 39 members, including the Tigray president, Debretsion, of immunity from prosecution.
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, local media reported, in what appeared to be a government-backed attempt to win the propaganda war over Tigray.