The leader of rebellious forces in Tigray region says the Ethiopian government forces have begun an offensive to capture the regional capital, Makelle.
Debretsion Gebremichael, leader of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), told Reuters news agency in a text message on Saturday that the city was under “heavy bombardment”.
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Billene Seyoum, a spokeswoman for the prime minister’s office, said the Ethiopian forces would not “bombard” civilian areas, adding “the safety of Ethiopians in Makelle and Tigray region continues as priority for the federal government.”
Aid groups fear extensive civilian casualties in Makelle, a city of 500,000 people.
Al Jazeera’s Malcolm Webb, reporting from Nairobi, said he has heard from multiple sources in the Ethiopian military that their offensive on the regional capital has begun.
“Some sources are saying that the explosions can be heard in the north of the city,” he said.
In a statement, the TPLF said Ethiopia’s military “has started hitting with heavy weaponry and artillery the centre of Mekelle”.
“The Tigray regional state calls upon all who have a clear conscience, including the international community, to condemn the artillery and warplane attacks and massacres being committed,” it added.
Claims by all sides in the three-week-old conflict between government and TPLF forces have been impossible to verify because phone and internet connections to the region are down and access to the area is tightly controlled.
Earlier on Saturday, Lieutenant-General Hassan Ibrahim said in a statement the federal forces had seized control of Wikro, a town 50 kilometres (30 miles) north of Makelle and “will control Makelle in a few days”.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed on Thursday announced the “final phase” of the offensive in Tigray. The announcement came after government’s ultimatum to the TPLF to surrender expired on Wednesday.
Abiy announced military operations in Tigray on November 4 after months of friction between his government and the TPLF. His government and the one in Tigray led by the TPLF consider each other illegitimate.
Abiy, the winner of last year’s Nobel Peace Prize, accused Tigrayan leaders of starting the war by attacking federal troops at a base in Tigray. The TPLF says the attack was a pre-emptive strike.
Abiy, who announced on Thursday the military was beginning the “final phase” of its offensive, told the African Union’s peace envoys a day later his government will protect civilians in Tigray and is willing to talk to representatives “operating legally” in the region.
A statement issued by the prime minister’s office after their meeting, however, made no mention of talks with the TPLF to end the fighting.
The statement issued after Abiy met the African Union envoys – former Presidents Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia, Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique and Kgalema Motlanthe of South Africa – added the government was committed to the “protection and security of civilians”.
The statement thanked the envoys for imparting their “wisdom, insights, and readiness to support in any way they are needed” and did not mention any plans for further discussions with them.
The envoys had been sent to Addis Ababa to help mediate in the conflict, something Abiy had already made clear he did not want as he rejected any foreign “interference”.
Rockets target Eritrea
Debretsion also accused the military of the neighbouring nation of Eritrea of raiding refugee camps in Tigray to capture refugees who had fled Eritrea.
Reuters said it was not immediately able to get comment from the Eritrean government.
At least one rocket fired from Tigray targeted Eritrea on Friday night, four regional diplomats told the AFP news agency – the second such attack since Ethiopia’s internal conflict broke out earlier this month.
There was no immediate confirmation of how many rockets were fired, where they landed, and any casualties or damage caused.
The TPLF has accused Ethiopia of enlisting Eritrean military support in the fighting, a charge Ethiopia denies.
The group claimed responsibility for similar attacks on Eritrea two weeks ago, but there was no immediate comment from its leaders on Friday.
Thousands of people are already believed to have been killed following air attacks and ground fighting.
The United Nations estimates 1.1 million Ethiopians will need aid as a result of the conflict, which has sent shockwaves through the Horn of Africa and threatens to involve neighbouring countries.
More than 43,000 refugees have fled to Sudan, with the UN estimating that number to be 200,000 in six months.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres had stressed the need to ensure the protection of civilians, human rights and aid access and “appreciates the statement by Prime Minister Abiy today reaffirming the Federal Government’s utmost commitment to these obligations,” UN spokesman Farhan Haq said on Friday.