Hundreds of thousands of civilians were trapped on Saturday in Mekelle, the capital of Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region, which came under “heavy bombardment.”
Aid workers and regional officials said on Saturday Mekelle was under heavy shelling from Ethiopian government forces.
The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) leader Debretsion Gebremichael told news agency Reuters in a text message that Mekelle was under “heavy bombardment”, adding that the government had started an operation to capture it.
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Another TPLF statement, reported by the Agence France Presse, urged the international community to “condemn the artillery and warplane attacks and massacres being committed”.
The statement also accused the Eritrean government of being involved in the attack on Mekelle.
No independent body has been able to determine civilian casualties.
The Ethiopian military said late on Friday that government forces were set to take control of Mekelle, the regional capital of Tigray, even as hundreds of thousands of civilians remained trapped in the city of more than 500,000 people.
The announcement came after federal forces seized control of Wikro, a town about 30 miles north of Mekelle. They also took control of several other towns.
In a statement, Lieutenant-General Hassan Ibrahim said federal forces will control Mekelle “in a few days.”
On Thursday, Abiy Ahmed, a Nobel Peace Prize winner who has refused to pursue peace with the African Union, announced the final phase of an offensive in the region.
The Ethiopian military has been fighting the armed wing of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in the northern region of Tigray, which borders Eritrea and Sudan.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed accuses Tigrayan leaders of attacking federal troops at a base in Tigray on November 4. The TPLF argues that the attack was a pre-emptive strike.
There are fears that thousands of people have been bombed to death, many of them civilians, but it is difficult to tell since communication had been cut by Abiy’s government. Tens of thousands of refugees have already fled to Sudan.
An attempt by the African Union to seek peace was rebuffed by Abiy and his government, and the rest of the world has done virtually nothing.
The ultimatum given to the TPLF last Sunday to lay down arms or face an assault on Mekelle expired on Wednesday. And there are fears many civilians may die in the final assault, even though Abiy told African Union envoys on Friday the military will protect them.
The United States Embassy in neighboring Eritrea said in a statement on Saturday that “a loud noise, possibly an explosion” was heard in the capital Asmara on Friday evening, another sign the conflict may be spreading beyond Ethiopia.
Tigrayans dominated Ethiopia’s government until Abiy took power in 2018, although they make up only about 6 percent of the country’s 115 million population.
Abiy’s government put on trial senior Tirayan officials for corruption, torture and murder, trials that were seen in Tigray as discrimination.
Abiy had said earlier on that his job was to unite Ethiopians and end years of state repression as well as free tens of thousands of political prisoners.
Multiple reports said a mysterious letter was sent to embassies in Addis Ababa on Friday warning defense attaches that they risked expulsion if they were in contact with the enemies of Ethiopia.
The letter was stamped by Brigadier-General Boultie Tadesse of the Defense Foreign Relations Directorate.
The letter said “some military attaches are working with those who endangered the security of the country, identified in blacklist and sought by attorney of the court.”
“We will expel those who do not refrain from their actions who are in contact with those extremist group.”