Tigray official denies Mekelle has been surrounded, saying troops could not ‘move an inch for more than one week’.
Forces from Ethiopia’s Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) have destroyed an airport in the ancient town of Axum, according to state-affiliated media, as advancing federal troops gave them a 72-hour ultimatum to surrender.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has told the TPLF, which rules the mountainous northern region of five million people, to lay down their arms by Wednesday or face a final assault on the regional capital, Mekelle.
The federal army says its forces are within 60km (37 miles) of Mekeale, a city of half a million people.
TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael told Reuters news agency that Abiy’s threat was a cover for government forces to regroup after what he described as defeats on three fronts.
There was no immediate response from either side to the other’s latest comments. Claims by all sides are hard to verify because phone and internet communication has been down.
Hundreds, possibly thousands, have been killed in fighting and air attacks that erupted on November 4, sending about 40,000 refugees into neighbouring Sudan. Both warring sides have been accused of atrocities against civilians.
The conflict has spread beyond Tigray, with the TPLF firing rockets into the neighbouring Ethiopian region of Amhara and across the border into Eritrea.
International appeals for mediation, from the United Nations and around Africa and Europe, have so far not gained traction.
Fana broadcaster on Monday said TPLF troops had destroyed the airport serving Axum, a town northwest of Mekelle that is a popular tourist draw and a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Axum’s history and ruins, including fourth-century obelisks when the Axumite Empire was at its height, allows Ethiopia to stake a claim as one of the world’s oldest centres of Christianity.
Legend says it was once home to the Queen of Sheba and that an Axum church housed the Ark of the Covenant.
The UN humanitarian coordinator for Ethiopia, Catherine Sozi, urged safety guarantees for aid workers, Mekelle’s inhabitants, and their health, school and water systems.
Abiy’s government has repeatedly said it is only targeting TPLF leaders and facilities to restore law and order after they rose up against federal troops. It denies hitting civilians.
But on Monday, as the clock ticks on the 72-hour ultimatum issued the previous day, the federal government again warned Mekelle residents saying “anything can happen.”
Senior official Redwan Hussein told reporters that the TPLF leaders are “hiding out in a densely populated city; the slightest strike would end up losing lives.”
Human rights groups and others were alarmed over the weekend when Ethiopia’s military warned civilians in Mekelle that there would be “no mercy” if they don’t “save themselves” before the offensive to flush out defiant regional leaders. Amnesty International warns that deliberately attacking civilians and civilian objects “is prohibited under international humanitarian law and constitutes war crimes.”
The TPLF says Abiy has “invaded” their region in order to dominate them and is inflicting “merciless” damage on Tigrayans.
“We are people of principle and are ready to die in defence of our right to administer our region,” TPLF leader Debretsion added in a text message to Reuters on Monday.