The Ethiopian military said on Sunday it will use tanks to encircle Mekelle, the capital of the northern Tigray region, adding that civilians in the half a million city should be aware of the danger.
“We want to send a message to the public in Mekelle to save themselves from any artillery attacks and free themselves from the Junta. The junta is now shielding itself within the public and the public must isolate itself from the junta,” a military spokesman, Colonel Dejene Tsegaye, told the state-run Ethiopia Broadcasting Corporation, referring to the TPLF.
“So far, we were only attacking targets which the junta fighters were stationed but in the case of Mekelle it might be different,” Dejene added.
He said the next phases are “the decisive part of the operation, which is to encircle Mekelle using tanks, finishing the battle on mountainous areas and advancing to the fields.”
On Saturday, the government of Abiy Ahmed in Ethiopia rebuffed an effort by the African Union to mediate in his current conflict with Tigray, even as the regional crisis continues to metastasize and civilians pay with their lives.
Humanitarian organizations say they fear that a humanitarian crisis will follow all the bombings and deaths, with tens of thousands of Ethiopians already going into exile since the conflict exploded on November 4.
Abiy is accusing Tigrayan leaders of revolting against the central authority and attacking federal troops in the town of Dansha, while Tigray leaders say his government has marginalized and persecuting Tigrayans since he came into office in 2018. Abiy denies that accusation, saying he’s only trying to preserve law and order and the unity of Ethiopia and its 115 million people.
“The overall safety and well-being of the people of Tigray is of paramount importance to the Federal government and we will do all that is necessary to ensure stability prevails in the Tigray region and that our citizens are free from harm and want,” Abiy tweeted on Saturday.
Abiy’s parents are from the larger Oromo and Amhara ethnic groups while the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) dominated national politics from 1991 until Abiy was elected in 2018.
However, even in the Oromia region, Abiy’s government continues to detain thousands of opposition members, including several Oromo opposition leaders, following bloody protests there months ago.
The African Union mediation
The African Union on Friday appointed former presidents Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia and Kgalema Motlanthe of South Africa as special envoys to mediate and seek a ceasefire between Ethiopia and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
But the government tweeted that news about any mediation talks was fake. “News circulating that the envoys will be traveling to Ethiopia to mediate between the Federal Government and the TPLF’s criminal element is fake,” the government tweeted.
The government indicated that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who won the Nobel Peace Prize last year for a peace pact with Eritrea, aims to capture TPLF before talking.
The government said its troops had seized another town in their march towards the Tigray capital of Mekelle, home to about half a million people, adding that the town of Adigrat, located about 116 kilometers (72 miles) north of Mekelle, had fallen.
The government has announced that it will soon reach Mekelle after taking various surrounding towns, including Adigrat that fell on Saturday.
TPLF said on Saturday that at least nine persons died among heavy casualties in artillery hits on Adigrat.
The government had previously denied targeting civilians, but with phone and internet connections down since the beginning of the conflict and media largely barred with several journalists in detention, it is hard to independently verify any information inside the troubled region.
Thousands of people are said to have died and tens of thousands of refugees have fled to Sudan since the conflict erupted on November 4, 2020.
Advance towards Mekelle
The Ethiopian government said the Tigrayan forces were bulldozing roads and destroying bridges to hold up the advance on Mekelle, but had that troops were continuing their advance to the capital.
But the conflict seems to be spiraling beyond the Tigray region with multiple reports alleging that Tigray forces had reportedly fired rockets at the neighboring Amhara region and into Eritrea.
Eritrea has denied the TPLF allegations that it had sent soldiers over the border to back Abiy’s offensive against the Tigrayan forces, who are also an old foe of Eritrea.
On Thursday, the United States government called for an independent investigation following massacres in the Tigray region in Ethiopia.
The United States said the investigation should not be conducted by the Ethiopian government or the the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which is fighting the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.
U.S. Department of State Bureau of African Affairs Assistant Secretary Tibor P. Nagy and U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia Michael A. Raynor spoke with reporters in a telephone conference from Washington D.C.
Mr. Nagy called for communication to be re-established in Tigray region and for humanitarian access to be ensured.
He said the United States remains concerned that civilians have been targeted, and that journalists have been arrested by the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.
He called on neighboring countries to continue to welcome asylum seekers from Ethiopia, adding that the U.S. government is tracking the outflow of civilians from Ethiopia.
Nagy indicated that the U.S. government did not have any evidence the director general of the World Health Organization (WHO) Tedros Adhnom Ghebreyesus was supporting Tigray’s rebels or was trying to procure weapons for them as alleged the military in Ethiopia on Thursday.
Asked by reporters via teleconference whether he had seen any evidence the WHO chief was either lobbying or trying to purchase weapons for the TPLF, the U.S. Department of State Bureau of African Affairs Assistant Secretary Tibor P. Nagy said the allegations did not come from the US government.
Pressed further to say whether the US government had seen any evidence the WHO boss was actively engaged with the rebels, Tibor P. Nagy referred reporters to seek answers from the Ethiopian government.
Ethiopia’s military on Thursday baselessly accused Tedros of backing the rebels.
The military claimed without providing any evidence that the WHO chief was trying to procure arms for Tigray state’s main political party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which is fighting the federal government.
Ethiopia’s army chief of staff General Birhanu Jula said in a televised address that Dr. Tedros Adhnom Ghebreyesus should be removed from office because he is “a criminal” and “a member of that group.”
Birhanu claimed that Tedros was using his international platform to get diplomatic support and weapons for the TPLF.
“He has been doing everything to support them, he has campaigned to get the neighboring countries to condemn the war,” Birhanu said in his televised address, without providing any evidence.
“He has worked to facilitate weapons for them. He tried to lobby people by using his international profile and mission to get support for the TPLF junta,” he added.
Tedros is an Ethiopian of Tigrayan origin but the military did not provide any evidence to back up its incendiary claims.
As he fights the deadly coronavirus, Dr. Tedros, who was Ethiopia’s health minister and foreign minister in a ruling coalition led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), has often come under attack from people in his own country, and from the outgoing American President, Donald John Trump, who also baselessly accused him and the WHO of being “China-centric” and of not providing the US early warnings about COVID-19.
But a book and tapes by Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward showed that Mr. Trump deliberately downplayed the pandemic to protect his presidency. He also praised China himself and only began to blame everyone else when many Americans began to die under his watch.
The TPLF was the ruling party in Ethiopia for decades as the most powerful part of the coalition until Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took office in 2018 promising to bring change.
The TPLF has refused to join Abiy’s own national party, after the other three regional parties were folded into his own.
Tedros, 55, has survived previous unfounded accusations since he was elected in May 2017 as the WHO’s first African director-general.