Ethiopian forces have captured two towns from rebel forces in the northern Tigray region, the government said, as the fighting continues to escalate in a two-week war that has caused a growing humanitarian emergency.
A government statement said on Friday that Ethiopian troops took the towns of Axum and Adwa.
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Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people have been killed in the conflict between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) rebels and the central government and tens of thousands of refugees have fled fighting in Tigray.
The conflict erupted two weeks ago after what Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government called a TPLF attack on the army stationed in the region.
The government said its forces are now advancing towards the town of Adigrat, about 120km (75 miles) north of Mekelle – the regional capital of Tigray and home to about half a million people.
“Many fighters of the junta have surrendered,” the statement said, referring to the TPLF.
It has been impossible to verify assertions on all sides because telephone lines and internet links to Tigray have been severed since the conflict began.
Al Jazeera’s Mohammed Adow, reporting from Addis Ababa, said the capture of the Axum and Adwa would be significant achievements for the Abiy-led government.
“These two towns are a huge part of the history of this country,” Adow said.
Adow added that Axum was part of the Axumite Kingdom, which many Ethiopians are “very proud of”, while Adwa was the site of an Ethiopian war victory over the Italians in 1896.
Ethiopian government forces are fighting their way towards Mekelle from several directions.
Meanwhile, in a televised address on Friday, Getachew Reda, the spokesman of Tigray president, said their fighters have inflicted “increasing casualties” in Raya, to the south of Mekelle.
Tigrayan fighters also “eliminated enemy forces” from Mehoni in the south and Zalambessa to the northeast, Tigrayan TV said.
Reda also claimed responsibility for a rocket attack in the early hours of Friday on an airport in a neighbouring region.
The rocket attack on Bahir Dar, capital of Amhara region, raised concerns that the conflict could spiral into a wider war.
Reda said it was in retaliation for bombing raids launched from there.
“We will continue to target whichever airport has been used to stage an attack on Tigray,” he said.
The Amhara government’s communications office said the rockets caused no damage.
United Nations chief Antonio Guterres called on Friday for the opening of humanitarian corridors to assist civilians caught in fighting in the Tigray region, noting that authorities had so far rejected attempts at mediation.
“We are very worried about the situation in Ethiopia,” the secretary general told reporters in New York, warning of a “dramatic humanitarian impact” including in neighbouring Sudan.
“We have been asking for the full respect of international humanitarian law and also for the opening of humanitarian corridors and the truces that might be necessary for humanitarian aid to be delivered in the areas of conflict,” he said, without specifying where such corridors could be located.
The UN said it was making plans for as many as 200,000 refugees fleeing to neighbouring Sudan.
Axel Bisschop of the UN refugee agency UNHCR told a briefing in Geneva that 31,000 refugees had already reached Sudan, surpassing a contingency plan for 20,000.
“The new planning figure is around 200,000,” Bisschop said.
UNICEF’s Sudan-based representative Abdullah Fadil worried about the effect on Sudan, already hosting one million refugees from other African wars.
“Our serious concern is if we do not act quickly with the resources needed … this could unravel not only Ethiopia but also Sudan,” he told the same briefing.
Ethiopia, a federation of 10 ethnic regions, was dominated for decades by Tigrayans in a TPLF-led ruling coalition, until Abiy, who is of Amhara and Oromo descent, took power two years ago. He says he aims to share authority more fairly.
The TPLF accuses him of pursuing a vendetta against former officials.