Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed gave forces in the northern Tigray region a three-day ultimatum to surrender before the military begins an offensive on the rebel-held regional capital of Mekelle.
“We urge you to surrender peacefully within 72 hours, recognising that you are at the point of no return,” Abiy said in a Twitter message on Sunday evening. There was no immediate comment from the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which rules Tigray.
Abiy’s statement came hours after an Ethiopian military spokesman said the army plans to surround Mekelle with tanks and may attack it with artillery to end a nearly three-week war, urging civilians to “save themselves”.
Military spokesman Colonel Dejene Tsegaye told the Ethiopia Broadcasting Corporation the next phase of the operation was “to encircle Mekelle using tanks”.
“We want to send a message to the public in Mekelle to save yourselves from any artillery attacks and free yourselves from the junta … After that, there will be no mercy,” he said.
The United Nations urged Ethiopia on Monday to ensure the protection of civilians.
Catherine Sozi, the UN humanitarian coordinator for Ethiopia, said she hoped for the guarantee of safety and security of aid workers and the “protection of more than 525,000 civilians who live in Mekelle”.
She also asked for the “protection of all civilian infrastructure like health facilities, schools and water system … of civilian importance”.
In a statement on Twitter, the government’s emergency task force said: “Our women and men in uniform have shown great care to protect civilians from harm during the law enforcement operation they have carried out in Tigray so far.”
Ethiopian forces seized the town of Idaga Hamus, 97km (60 miles) from the rebel-held Tigray capital of Mekelle, a government task force also said on Sunday.
“Our defence force took control of Idaga Hamus town, which is located on the road from Adigrat to Mekelle. The defence force is advancing to capture Mekelle, which is the final goal of the operation,” it said in a tweet.
The TPLF, which is refusing to surrender its rule of the northern region, said its forces were digging trenches and standing firm.
Claims by all sides are hard to verify because journalists have been barred from phone and internet communication that has been down since fighting began on November 4.
The war has killed hundreds, possibly thousands, and sent more than 30,000 refugees into neighbouring Sudan. Rockets have been fired by the TPLF into the neighbouring region of Amhara and across the border into Eritrea, as the TPLF accused both of aiding Ethiopia’s federal forces.
‘Couldn’t move an inch’
TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael told Reuters news agency earlier on Sunday that his forces were resisting a push from south of Mekelle while also fighting near the northern town of Adigrat after it had fallen to federal troops.
“Encircling Mekelle is their plan but yet they couldn’t,” he said. “On [the] south front, they couldn’t move an inch for more than one week. They [are] sending waves after waves but to no avail.”
Abiy’s federal troops have taken a string of towns during aerial bombardments and ground fighting, and are now aiming for Mekelle, a highland city of about 500,000 people where the rebels are based.
Countries around Africa and Europe have urged a truce, but Abiy has so far rebuffed that.
Al Jazeera’s Mohammed Adow, reporting from the capital, Addis Ababa, said Ethiopian officials are describing the offensive as the “final push” to capture Tigray.
“They have been dropping leaflets on the capital, Mekelle, telling civilians who remain to be nowhere near military installations,” said Adow.
“Government troops are now advancing from the north, south and west. But security analysts are warning that any expectation of a rapid and decisive victory by government forces is very optimistic and they face a protracted war of attrition.”
Matt Bryden, strategic adviser at the Sahan Research think-tank, told Al Jazeera this week: “Tigray sees itself as defending its own sovereignty, the federal government Ethiopia’s unity – so this is shaping up to be an existential clash between the two sides.”
He added: “The terrain in Tigray favours the defenders who are very heavily armed and equipped; they have fought for decades in those mountains before and the longer this goes on, more grievances will be accumulated and the harder this conflict will be to resolve.”
‘Take maximum restraint’
Abiy accuses the Tigrayan leaders of revolting against central authority and attacking federal troops in the town of Dansha on November 4. The rebels say his government has marginalised and persecuted Tigrayans since taking office two years ago.
The prime minister drew plaudits for opening up Ethiopia’s closed economy and repressive political system after taking office. He won a Nobel Peace Prize last year for a peace agreement with Eritrea.
Redwan Hussein, spokesman for the government’s task force on Tigray, said there was still time for the TPLF leadership to surrender. “The government will take maximum restraint not to cause major risks for civilians,” he added.
He said while many Tigrayan special forces and militia fighters had surrendered or scattered around Adigrat, resistance was stronger on the southern front, where rebels have dug up roads, destroyed bridges, and booby-trapped roads with explosives. He said government troops had taken high ground there and were moving forward.
Aid agencies fear a humanitarian disaster in a region where hundreds of thousands relied on food aid and were displaced even before fighting began.
Many of the people who have fled the fighting to Sudan say they have nothing, and badly need food and other basics.
“It’s not good. There is no water. The stuff here is very expensive,” said Yarod Abraham, an Ethiopian refugee. “There is no food, water, shelter. We have little kids with us, they are starving here.”