(The Guardian) — Ethiopia’s prime minister has ordered federal military forces to launch a “final offensive” on the capital of the restive Tigray region after his 72-hour ultimatum for dissident local leaders to surrender expired.
In a statement posted on social media, Abiy Ahmed said great care would be taken to protect innocent civilians from harm and said that efforts would be made by government troops to ensure that the city of Mekelle, which has a population of 500,000, is not “severely damaged”.
“We call on the people of Mekelle and its environs to disarm, stay at home and stay away from military targets [and] to do their part in reducing damages to be sustained because of a handful of criminal elements,” Ahmed said.
Earlier this week, military officials warned of “no mercy” if residents of Mekelle did not distance themselves from the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the local ruling party.
Debretsion Gebremichael, the leader of the TPLF, said on Tuesday his people were “ready to die” defending their homeland.
Abiy launched the military campaign against the TPLF on 4 November, accusing it of attacking federal military camps in the northern region and seeking to destabilise the country.
The 44-year-old leader, who won the Nobel peace prize last year for his peace deal with neighbouring Eritrea, said the TPLF had orchestrated a “spate of violent attacks” across Ethiopia to “frustrate the democratisation process”.
Officials in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, describe the offensive in Tigray as a “law enforcement operation” aiming to remove “traitorous” rebel leaders and restore central authority. The TPLF says it is defending its legitimate rights under Ethiopia’s devolved constitutional system.
Hundreds, possibly thousands, have died in the conflict so far, with up to a million people displaced. At least one massacre has taken place, with allegations of atrocities made against both sides.
Last-minute efforts by the African Union and the United Nations to defuse the crisis have failed. Abiy on Wednesday rejected international “interference”.
The UN says shortages have become “very critical” in the Tigray region, with fuel and cash running out. Food for nearly 100,000 refugees from Eritrea will be gone in a week, according to a report released overnight. And more than 600,000 people who rely on monthly food rations haven’t received them this month.
Travel blockages are so dire that even within Mekelle, the UN World Food Program cannot transport food from its warehouses there.
Communications and travel links remain severed with the Tigray region since the conflict broke out, and Human Rights Watch is warning that “actions that deliberately impede relief supplies” violate international humanitarian law.
The UN has reported people fleeing Mekelle, but with communications cut, it is unclear how many residents are aware of the impending assault.
The head of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission said on Thursday that “extreme caution to avoid civilian harm is of even greater importance, now, at this stage of the conflict”.