Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has said his country’s army pulled out of Mekelle, the capital of the embattled Tigray region, because it was no longer a “centre of gravity for conflicts” – a statement rejected by the Tigrayan forces that retook the city as an “absolute lie”.
In a major turn of events in the nearly eight-month-old conflict, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) said it was in complete control of Mekelle on Tuesday, only about a week after launching a major counteroffensive against the Ethiopian federal forces and their allies, including troops from neighbouring Eritrea and fighters from the Ethiopian region of Amhara, which borders Tigray to the south.
It came a day after Ethiopia’s government in Addis Ababa declared a unilateral ceasefire, dismissed by the TPLF as a “joke”.
Residents in Mekelle, where communications were down on Wednesday, had earlier said the incoming Tigrayan fighters had been welcomed with cheers. There were similar scenes in the northern town of Shire on Wednesday, where Eritrean troops had pulled out and Tigrayan forces had entered, residents said.
Rebel fighters say they’ve taken control of more territory in Ethiopia's Tigray. They’ve dismissed Ethiopia’s unilateral ceasefire declaration as a ‘joke’.
— Al Jazeera English (@AJEnglish) June 30, 2021
Abiy confirmed the withdrawal from Mekelle, as a government official added that troops could return within weeks if needed.
“When we entered Mekelle seven or eight months ago, it was because it was the centre of gravity for conflicts,” the prime minister told state media on Tuesday, a video of which was posted on his website on Wednesday.
“It was centre of a government. A centre for known and unknown resources. But by the time we exit, there is nothing special about it except that there are some 80,000 people and those who loot people … It has lost its centre of gravity in the current context.”
His comments prompted a swift response by TPLF spokesman Getachew Reda.
“The fact that he’s claiming to have withdrawn from Mekelle is an absolute lie. We bested them in their own game. They lost,” Getachew told Reuters news agency by satellite phone on Wednesday.
Separately, Getachew told Al Jazeera’s Catherine Wambua on Wednesday that the Tigrayan forces would not stop fighting until the entire region was under their control.
“Getachew says even if [Tigray] forces are making good gains and pushing back opposing forces, the Ethiopian military – backed by Eritrean forces and Amhara fighters – still control large swaths of Tigrayan territory,” Wambua said. “The aim of the Tigrayan forces is to push back to make sure that every inch of Tigray is in their control.”
In comments to The Associated Press news agency, Getachew also said there would be no negotiations with Ethiopia until communications, transport and other services that have been cut or destroyed for much of the war are restored.
“We have to make sure that every inch of our territory is returned to us, the rightful owners,” he said, issuing a warning to the longtime president of Eritrea, Isaias Afwerki, who has long been an enemy of Tigray’s leaders.
Witnesses have accused the Eritrean soldiers of some of the worst atrocities in the conflict. “We will do anything in our power to make sure that Isaias will never be a threat again,” Getachew said.
Matt Bryden, a strategic adviser for Sahan Research who focuses on the Horn of Africa, told Al Jazeera the TPLF has a specific focus on driving out Eritrean troops.
“Even if the Eritreans withdraw, the boundary between Ethiopia and Eritrea was long contested and it was Ethiopias failure to withdraw forces from territory awarded to Eritrea that was sort of a thorn on the side of the Eritreans,” he said.
“Now, if the Eritreans withdraw from Tigray but they to remain in those territories that were previously under Ethiopian control, the Tigrayans are likely to engage them militarily and retake that land back for Tigray,” Bryden added.
“The other consideration is that President Isaias is considered by the … TPLF to be their prime adversary – I think even more of a threat than the Ethiopian government. So I would not be surprised if we see [the Tigrayan forces] now starting to push the Eritreans off to the defensive – or try to, at least – and work towards fomenting dissent and instability in Eritrea with the view to ousting Isaias.”
There have been repeated international calls for an end to the fighting, which has been marked by reports of brutal gang rapes and mass killings of civilians. Thousands of people, including at least 12 aid workers, have been killed and some two million displaced.
The federal government in Addis Ababa sent troops into Tigray in November 2020 to remove the TPLF, the region’s governing party that dominated Ethiopia’s national politics for nearly 30 years until Abiy came to power in 2018.
Abiy, the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner, said the military operation came in response to TPLF attacks on federal army camps, an allegation rejected by the TPLF which accused the federal government and neighbouring Eritrea of launching a “coordinated attack” against it.
On November 28, Abiy declared victory after federal troops entered Mekelle but fighting continued amid warnings over a protracted conflict with devastating effects on the civilian population.
The prime minister acknowledged in a speech to parliament in March that atrocities including rape have occurred and pledged that any member of the Ethiopian army who committed crimes against civilians would be held accountable.
At least 350,000 people in Tigray are facing famine and five million others need immediate food aid – the worst global food crisis in a decade – according to the United Nations.
Earlier on Wednesday, in the first public statement by a federal government official since Mekelle was taken by the Tigrayan forces, Redwan Hussein, spokesman for the Ethiopian government’s task force for Tigray, told reporters, “If it is required, we can easily enter to Mekelle and we can enter in less than three weeks.”
“Ethiopia is exposed to an attack from outsiders” because of the conflict, Redwan told reporters. For months, neighbours Ethiopia and Sudan have been locked in a volatile border dispute over a swath of fertile land known as al-Fashaga.
The Eritreans that joined the conflict to support the Ethiopian government forces had withdrawn from the region, Redwan said.
Lieutenant-General Bacha Debele similarly told reporters the Ethiopian army left Mekelle to prepare for threats other than the TPLF.
“The TPLF is no more a threat, but we’ve got [a] more national threat that we need to shift our attention to,” Bacha told reporters, but denied the possibility of a conflict with Sudan over disputed lands.