Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia’s prime minister, said on Thursday that federal forces were entering their “final stage” in the offensive against Tigrayan rebels in the north of the country.
His statement came as a 72-hour deadline given to the leaders of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, or TPLF, expired on Wednesday night.
“The last peaceful gate which had remained open for the TPLF clique to walk through has now been firmly closed as a result of the TPLF’s contempt for the people of Ethiopia,” Mr Abiy said in a statement. He added that “thousands” of Tigrayan special forces and militias had “surrendered peacefully”.
A military spokesman had earlier warned the 500,000 civilians in Mekelle, capital of Tigray, to surrender or face an attack by federal troops in which “no mercy” would be shown, a statement that spurred concerns in the international community.
Mr Abiy said on Thursday that “great care will be given to protect innocent civilians from harm”. Hundreds, or even thousands, may have been killed in fighting, so far, according to foreign diplomats in Addis Ababa, though a communications blackout in Tigray makes it hard to verify numbers.
Mr Abiy has rejected international calls for a ceasefire, saying foreign powers should not meddle in the country’s internal affairs. He has referred to military action against the TPLF, which runs Tigray and dominated national politics until 2018, a law enforcement operation.
“The TPLF leadership orchestrated a spate of violent attacks by training, arming and financing criminal elements to target ethnic and religious minorities and bring themselves back to power,” Mr Abiy said. The TPLF has also been accused of instigating a massacre of 600 civilians.
The TPLF has denied fomenting ethnic violence but admitted to what it called a pre-emptive attack against the federal army’s Northern Command stationed in Mekelle on November 3 — the immediate trigger of the conflict.
TPLF leaders say they are “ready to die” to defend their region, which is home to 5m of the country’s 110m people.
There are growing calls from the international community to halt the fighting and negotiate. Jake Sullivan, US president-elect Joe Biden’s pick for national security adviser, wrote on Twitter on Wednesday that he was “deeply concerned about the risk of violence against civilians, including potential war crimes, in the fighting around Mekelle . . . Both sides should immediately begin dialogue facilitated by the AU,” he said, referring to the African Union.
Three emissaries — former presidents Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia and Kgalema Motlanthe of South Africa — were due to arrive in Addis Ababa on Thursday, according to people familiar with the former leaders’ schedule.
In an article in Foreign Policy magazine, Hailemariam Desalegn, Mr Abiy’s predecessor, accused the international community of what he called “false balance and bothsideism”. Mr Abiy’s government, he wrote, could not be equated with the TPLF, which he called a “revanchist old regime” using “violence, ethnic profiling and despicable attacks, including on federal troops” as a route back to power.
Mr Hailemariam, who was prime minister from 2012 to 2018 when the TPLF was in control, said analysts were also mythologising the group’s fighting strength. The TPLF was not, he wrote, an “invincible force”, adding that federal troops should bring what he called “criminal elements” within its leadership to swift justice.
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