Allegedly, Ethiopian federal forces bombed Mekelle, the capital of the northern region of Tigray, with projectiles reaching the outskirts of the city of 500,000.
Reports of new violence around Mekelle on Saturday come nearly a week after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed told the leadership and forces of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the ruling party in the troubled region, to surrender or face an attack on their castle. .
Debretsion Gebremichael, head of the TPLF, told Reuters in an SMS that the city was being hit by “severe bombings” and that the Ethiopian military was using artillery.
Emergency workers in Mekelle said explosions were seen and heard around 10 a.m., although it is unclear whether artillery or airstrikes were responsible.
Billene Seyoum, a spokesman for the prime minister’s office, refuted this statement, stating that “Ethiopian national defense forces have no mission to bomb their own city and people”.
“[Mekelle] remains one of Ethiopia’s most important cities, and efforts to bring the criminal clique to justice do not entail the discriminatory “bombing” referred to by the TPLF and their propagandists, ”Seyoum said.
In recent days, Ethiopian federal forces have strengthened their positions in a rough ring around Mekelle, 20 to 40 km away. This would put the city within range of the heavy artillery within certain maximum range at certain points.
During the fighting last week, the clash of ridges, gorges and major road junctions has resulted in heavy casualties.
By interrupting communication with Tigray, it is difficult to corroborate information and conflicting statements.
Earlier this week, military officials warned “without mercy” if Mekelle’s residents did not distance themselves from the TPLF. Ahmed said on Friday that he remains determined to continue the three-week military offensive in Tigray and to “uphold the rule of law in the region and the country”.
The 44-year-old leader, who won the Nobel Peace Prize last year, has promised to protect civilians. In practice, however, it is difficult to comprehend how to avoid civilian casualties in any bombing or fight by Mekelle.
Western diplomats and observers in the region say Abiy may be reluctant to order a full attack on Mekelle, which would be costly for Ethiopian troops and civilians and could oppose international opinion against him.
One said, “So far, Ethiopians have held back pressure from the UN, the US, the Pope, the African Union, anyone else … but that would be much harder if they went to Mekelle. But then [Abiy] nor can he back down. So some shooting or air strikes are still a compromise.
The state-owned Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation said federal forces had identified TPLF’s key hiding places across Mekelle, including an auditorium and a museum. Government planes threw leaflets at the city, warning residents to stay away.
Some residents fled, satellite images revealed long lines of vehicles at gas stations earlier this week.
The International Crisis Group said: ‘A humanitarian catastrophe could develop in Mekelle’. Entering a heavily populated city would impose enormous, unbearable costs on civilians [and] severely damages Ethiopia’s international reputation. “
Analysts are skeptical that TPLF headquarters, which retreated to Tigray earlier this year as tensions with the central government intensified, remain in Mekelle but are likely to be scattered to distant hiding places.
Abiy met with delegates sent by the African Union on Friday to mediate the end of the crisis, but was not allowed to meet with TPLF representatives and gave no indication that the national government was considering a ceasefire or negotiations.
The TPLF renewed the call for talks on Friday.
“Tigray … is being destroyed by war … an immediate cessation [of hostilities] of paramount importance, ”said Getachew Reda, political advisor to the head of TPLF.
Ethiopian officials have made it clear that they do not recognize the TPLF as a legitimate negotiating partner.
According to a statement from Abiy’s office: “Failure to uphold the rule of law [in Tigray] nurture a culture of impunity [Ethiopia] with devastating consequences. ”
Abiy launched the military campaign on Nov. 4, accusing the TPLF of attacking federal military camps in Tigray and seeking to destabilize the country.
The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission also blamed TPLF-related militias for the massacre of many hundreds of workers from the neighboring Amhara region in Tigray.
The TPLF denies the allegations, saying the government is producing them as an excuse to launch a military operation to end its rule in Tigray. The party says it is defending its legal rights under Ethiopia’s decentralized constitutional system.
Ethiopian authorities have made some concessions to international pressure, offering to set up a humanitarian corridor that will allow aid to reach the tens of thousands left by the fighting, and a much larger number of people who have food, fuel and medicine.
Western diplomats and humanitarian officials say the promises are welcome, but nothing has changed on the ground.
“It’s encouraging to hear things like that, but as long as there’s no actual movement to let aid into the Tigray, they don’t mean much,” one said. “Serious issues arise with the idea of creating a humanitarian corridor under government control.”
Last week, the UN said the deficit was “very critical” in Tigray, running out of fuel and cash. According to a report released overnight, the food of nearly 100,000 Eritrean refugees disappears in a week, and more than 600,000 people who rely on monthly meal rations did not receive them this month.
Fuel is key because electricity is declining in much of the region, so diesel generators are essential.