Ethiopia’s military has “completed” operations in the rebel region of Tigray, according to prime minister Abiy Ahmed, after it took control of the capital city Mekelle on Saturday.
Mr Abiy, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019, said the armed forces had taken over Mekelle, concluding what he called the “final phase” of a month-long armed conflict, and that rebel “criminals” would be arrested and tried.
“I am pleased to share that we have completed and ceased military operations in the Tigray region,” Mr Abiy said. “Our focus now will be on rebuilding the region and providing humanitarian assistance while federal police apprehend the TPLF clique.”
The Ethiopian government has been engaged in a military offensive against the northern region, which is led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front for almost a month.
On Saturday night the US state department reported six explosions in neighbouring Eritrea, which the TPLF has accused of being in league with Addis Ababa. Mr Abiy’s government has denied Eritrean involvement, accusing the TPLF of seeking to internationalise the dispute and rally Tigrayans against a fake Eritrean “invasion”.
The whereabouts of senior TPLF leaders were unknown on Sunday and the government made no mention of any arrests.
Debretsion Gebremichael, the TPLF chairman, did not respond to messages on Saturday evening. However, earlier in the day, he texted to Reuters: “Their brutality can only add [to] our resolve to fight these invaders to the last.”
Asked if that meant his forces would continue fighting, he replied: “Certainly. This is about defending our right to self-determination.”
Alemayehu Weldemariam, an analyst on the Horn of Africa, wrote on Twitter: “This only marks the start of another long insurgency in Tigray against Ethiopia, which will be fought not for regional autonomy, but for complete independence.”
The TPLF dominated the national government for 27 years, but was jostled aside after Mr Abiy, who comes from the much more populous Oromia region, became prime minister in 2018. Since then, the government has accused the TPLF of sponsoring ethnic-based terrorism around the country in an attempt to knock Mr Abiy’s political and economic liberalisation agenda off course and regain power.
Mr Abiy has sought to portray the fighting in Tigray as a law enforcement operation that will come to a swift end.
Some analysts have speculated that the conflict may instead morph into a protracted guerrilla war as fighters retreat to the mountainous terrain from where the TPLF mounted an insurgency to overthrow the Marxist Derg regime in 1991. It was also unclear whether ordinary Tigrayans remained loyal to the TPLF, analysts said.
Information from the front lines has been tightly controlled after the government cut most telecommunications services, with both sides engaging in a war of words. Foreign diplomats in Addis Ababa believe hundreds, possibly thousands, of people have died since the conflict began after the TPLF attacked a federal army command station in Mekelle.
Mr Abiy did not say whether there had been casualties in the military takeover of the capital. Human rights groups have expressed concern that an assault on a city of 500,000 people could lead to heavy civilian losses.
Amid calls for a ceasefire and concern for civilians from the international community, Mr Abiy on Friday met emissaries from the African Union and agreed to open a “humanitarian assistance corridor” but refused offers of mediation.
UK foreign secretary Dominic Raab said on Saturday that he was “very concerned about reports of fighting in Mekelle” and of rocket attacks in neighbouring Eritrea.
More than 40,000 Ethiopian refugees have fled across the border into neighbouring Sudan. Senior Sudanese officials said that their country was ill-equipped to cope with such an influx.
The Ethiopian government has accused TPLF-controlled militia of massacring 700 civilians in the town of Mai Kadra this month, although the TPLF has denied fomenting ethnic violence.
“What the TPLF clique did isn’t just a nuisance. It’s treasonous,” said Redwan Hussein, spokesman for the State of Emergency Task Force for the Tigray Crisis.
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