As federal forces encircle Makelle and TPLF remains defiant, analysts fear capture of the city may not end the crisis.
Tigray forces battling Ethiopia’s federal government in the northern region said they “completely destroyed” the army’s 21st mechanised division.
The federal government denied the claim and said many Tigrayan soldiers were surrendering in line with a 72-hour ultimatum before a threatened attack on the regional capital Mekelle.
Getachew Reda, a spokesman for Tigray’s military, told Tigray TV a prestigious army unit – which he termed the 21st mechanised division – had been “completely destroyed” in an assault at Raya-Wahirat led by a former commander of that unit now fighting for the the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
Reda promised to “arm each and every civilian to defend the city of Mekelle”, a city with a population of about 500,000 people.
A government taskforce said large numbers of Tigrayan militia and special forces had surrendered and it asked others still with the TPLF to disarm wherever they were.
It is impossible to verify statements made by either side since phone and internet connections to the Tigray region are down and access to the area is strictly controlled.
‘Fight to the death’
Since the conflict erupted on November 4, hundreds of people have been killed and about 40,000 have fled into neighbouring Sudan.
The leader of Ethiopia’s dissident Tigray region has said his people are “ready to die” defending their homeland, rejecting Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s ultimatum that they surrender within 72 hours.
Abiy launched a military campaign against the TPLF on November 4, accusing it of attacking two federal military camps in the northern region, as well as defying and seeking to destabilise his government.
The federal army said its forces are within 60km (37 miles) of Mekelle, the seat of the TPLF, ahead of a threatened all-out bombardment of the city.
Abiy – last year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner – on Sunday called on the TPLF to surrender peacefully within three days, saying they were “at a point of no return”.
But the TPLF’s leader Debretsion Gebremichael said Abiy was trying to cover for setbacks his army had suffered against Tigrayan forces, and was issuing threats to buy time.
“He doesn’t understand who we are. We are people of principle and ready to die in defence of our right to administer our region,” Debretsion said on Monday.
Brigadier General Tesfaye Ayalew, quoted by state-affiliated Fana Broadcasting Corporate on Monday, said federal troops were “marching into Mekelle” having captured key towns to the north and south.
The army has threatened a “no mercy” tank assault on the TPLF leadership in Mekelle, warning civilians to leave while they still can, raising concerns among human rights activists.
“Treating a whole city as a military target would not only [be] unlawful, it could also be considered a form of collective punishment,” Human Rights Watch researcher Laetitia Bader said.
Amnesty International has documented a gruesome mass killing in which “likely hundreds” of people were stabbed and hacked to death in the southwest town of Mai-Kadra.
The UN Security Council will on Tuesday hold its first meeting on the conflict. The virtual meeting will not be open to the public and it was not yet clear if a statement would be issued afterwards, diplomatic sources said.
UN chief Antonio Guterres last week called for the opening of humanitarian corridors to assist civilians caught in the fighting, noting Ethiopian authorities had so far rejected attempts at mediation.
The United States, which regards Ethiopia as a powerful ally in a turbulent region, became the latest nation to call for peace, saying it supported AU mediation efforts “to end this tragic conflict now”.
In Bahir Dar, the capital of the Amhara region south of Tigray, witnesses said on Monday that rockets had hit the city, the third time it has been shelled since the fighting began.
There was no immediate response from the government, nor any claim of responsibility.
The TPLF claimed responsibility for earlier rocket strikes on Bahir Dar and Gondar, another city in Amhara, as well as Eritrea’s capital Asmara.
Abiy has resisted international pressure to halt the fighting, including from the African Union (AU), describing the campaign as a “law enforcement operation” against a “treasonous group” that is now entering its final phase.
Redwan Hussein, spokesman for an Ethiopian committee handling the conflict, said the government would meet envoys sent by the AU “as a matter of respect” but flatly ruled out any talks with the TPLF.
“Facts on the ground have changed and we’ve come to the very end,” he told reporters on Monday.
The TPLF led the armed struggle that toppled the brutal Derg government in 1991 and controlled the coalition that took over, ruling Ethiopia for nearly 30 years until Abiy was appointed in 2018.
Since then, Tigrayan leaders have complained of being unfairly singled out in corruption prosecutions, removed from top positions and broadly scapegoated for the country’s woes.