The Ethiopian military will begin the “final phase” of an offensive in the northern Tigray region, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has said in a statement, hours after an ultimatum for the Tigrayan forces to surrender expired.
“The 72-hour period granted to the criminal TPLF clique to surrender peacefully is now over and our law enforcement campaign has reached its final stage,” he tweeted on Thursday, referring to the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
Final Phase of the Rule of Law Operations Commences pic.twitter.com/TAAyZxSe0U
— Abiy Ahmed Ali 🇪🇹 (@AbiyAhmedAli) November 26, 2020
Abiy said the army has been ordered to move on the embattled Tigrayan capital, Mekelle, and warned its residents to “stay indoors”.
The statement by the prime minister’s office means tanks and other weaponry can now close in on the city of some half a million people. “We will take utmost care to protect civilians,” it says.
Al Jazeera’s Malcolm Webb, reporting from the Kenyan capital Nairobi, said the federal government is claiming a large number of Tigrayan fighters have surrendered to its forces in the last 72 hours.
“Prime Minister Abiy said thousands of Tigrayan fighters have surrendered in the last three days. But the last comment we heard from the TPLF leadership refuted that claim,” he said.
“Government forces also said they have surrounded Mekelle. Again, Tigray military leadership have refuted that claim.”
It was nearly impossible to verify the claims by all sides because phone and internet connections in the region were down and access to the area was tightly controlled.
Thousands of people were feared killed and there has been widespread destruction from aerial bombardment and ground fighting since the conflict began on November 4.
The international community has been pleading for immediate de-escalation, dialogue and humanitarian access as Ethiopian forces fight their way through Tigray to Mekelle.
But Abiy, last year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, has rejected international “interference”.
“It is a surprising, and in some way, a shocking turnaround,” Matt Bryden, of Sahan think tank, told Al Jazeera from Nairobi.
“Not least because we have seen appeals for dialogue from the United Nations, the African Union, from neighbouring governments, and Prime Minister Abiy has resisted all of them.”
Bryden said the other “disturbing” dimension of the situation were statements from the prime minister and senior security force commanders, who were “really muddying the waters” about their commitment to the protection of civilians.
“They seem to be preparing the ground for a situation in which allegations and counter-allegations … of who has killed who, who is responsible for the worst violence, becomes very difficult to determine in the aftermath.”
His government said three high-level African Union envoys, who reached Ethiopia on Wednesday, could meet Abiy, but not with Tigrayan leaders.
The TPLF once dominated Ethiopia’s government but has been sidelined under Abiy’s rule. The two governments now regard each other as illegal.
The United Nations on Thursday said shortages have become “very critical” in the Tigray region as its population of six million remains sealed off.
Fuel and cash are running out, more than a million people are now estimated to be displaced and food for nearly 100,000 refugees from Eritrea will be gone in a week, according to the UN’s update released overnight.
More than 600,000 people who rely on monthly food rations have not received them this month, the UN said.
Travel blockages are so dire that even within Mekelle, the UN World Food Programme cannot obtain access to transport food from its warehouses there.
Another crisis is unfolding as more than 40,000 Ethiopian refugees have fled into a remote area of Sudan, where humanitarian groups and local communities struggle to feed, treat and shelter them.
Al Jazeera’s Hiba Morgan reported from the Sudan-Ethiopia border that many refugees had to wait “more than a week” to access aid.
“Aid groups and international organisations say this is largely because this influx of refugees happened all of a sudden and that they were not expecting it.”
“The biggest challenge … is that most of the roads are very difficult to access logistically. Sudan had a very exceptional flood season just a couple of months ago and many of the roads were damaged.”