Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed says he will launch a “final phase” of an army operation in the northern region of Tigray after weeks of fighting.
He said the military was trying not to harm civilians in the regional capital, Mekelle – a city of 500,000 – and urged residents to stay at home.
The TPLF party, which controlled Mekelle, vowed to continue the fight.
The UN warns of possible war crimes if the Ethiopian army attacks Mekelle.
UN human rights chief Michele Bachelet told the BBC that the city’s residents were “in deep danger”.
“We are very concerned about the dangerous situation, especially the civilians trapped in Mekelle,” she said, adding that “there is a potential for serious violations of international humanitarian human rights law.”
Mr Abiy’s announcement comes after the deadline he passed on Wednesday to surrender the Tigray fighters.
Hundreds of people were reportedly killed and thousands forced out of their homes as Ethiopian forces seized various cities in Tigray from the TPLF.
The details of the fight are difficult to confirm because all telephone, mobile and internet communications with the Tigray region have been cut off.
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Daniel Berhane, a journalist and political activist based in Mekelle, told the BBC that there were no signs of an attack yet and that the city’s shops, cafes and restaurants were “almost full”.
Three members of the African Union have arrived in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, to mediate talks, but Ethiopia has so far rejected all attempts at mediation, saying the conflict is an internal matter and Mr Abiy’s government is on a law enforcement mission in Tigray.
The three stones cannot travel to Tigray.
Also on Thursday, Ethiopian troops were deployed along the Sudanese border in the Tigray region, where refugees said those fleeing the violence were prevented from leaving the country.
A BBC correspondent saw at least a dozen members in the Ethiopian military on the Sudanese side of the border, a significant drop in the number of people crossing into Sudan.
More than 40,000 people have fled Ethiopia since the beginning of the conflict.
Fear of attacking the costly Mekelle
Written by Kalkidan Yibeltal, BBC News, Addis Ababa
In the “final phase” of the military offensive launched by Prime Minister Abiy after the 72-hour ultimatum, he spoke of a military strategy in which TPLF senior personnel are brought to justice without damaging civilians or property in or around Mekelle.
It is not clear what this strategy will be, but it will not be easy to implement, especially when active fighting is taking place in the city. Artillery attacks, as suggested by an army official last week, and airstrikes are particularly difficult to carry out without killing civilians and destroying civilian infrastructure.
Federal government troops could encounter a kind of guerrilla war from the area outside Mekelle.
And that, too, may take longer than the government wants to end in the offensive. This could exacerbate the humanitarian crisis and, as a result, further international pressure.
Over the past three weeks, the government has taken over a number of areas in the Tigray area, but at a cost. Infringing public capital, which is considered TPLF’s main citadel, could be even more costly.
What did Prime Minister Abiy say?
He ordered the Ethiopian military to launch an offensive against Mekelle in the “third and final phase” of the federal government’s military campaign against the TPLF.
Mr Abiy said they were “taking great care” to protect civilians and “making every effort” to limit the damage caused by Mekelle.
He called on people in Mekelle and the surrounding areas to disarm, stay home and stay away from military targets.
Religious and historical sites, institutions and residential areas would not be targeted, he said.
How does TPLF react?
The leader of the huge regional party, Debretsion Gebremichael, said the Tigray forces were “ready to die in defense of the administrative rights of our region.”
Most of the TPLF fighters come from paramilitary units and well-trained local militias, and are thought to number about 250,000. Some analysts fear the situation could become a guerrilla conflict – and the TPLF will continue to attack government forces even if they occupy Mekelle.
One example of this is the battle for Aksum Airport, which, according to pro-government sources, fell to Ethiopian forces on 11 November and remains under their control.
But 11 days after the capture state media published images of the runway that were apparently full of debris and the trenches torn off it prevented the planes from landing, accusing the TPLF of sabotage attacks. Debretsion denied destroying the airport, saying its forces had set up obstacles to stop the Ethiopian army.
Reuters quoted a diplomatic source as saying the TPLF had “mobilized many people in Mekelle.” The person added, “They are digging trenches and everyone has an AK-47 [rifle]. “
Aid groups fear the conflict could trigger a humanitarian crisis and destabilize the Horn of Africa region.
An Ethiopian state-appointed Human Rights Commission has accused a Tigray youth group of behind a massacre earlier this month, claiming that more than 600 non-Tigray civilians have died in Mai-Kadra. TPLF denied participation.
Learn more about the Tigray crisis:
What is the fight?
The conflict is rooted in a long-running tension between the Ethiopian central government and the TPLF, which was a dominant political force throughout the country until Mr Abiy came to power in 2018 and introduced a series of far-reaching reforms.
When Mr Abiy postponed the national elections in June because of the coronavirus, relations deteriorated further.
According to the TPLF, the reign of the central government has expired, arguing that Mr Abiy has not been tested in national elections.
In September, the party held its own elections, which the central government said were “illegal.”
Then, on November 4, the Ethiopian prime minister declared an operation against the TPLF, accusing his forces of attacking the army’s northern command headquarters in Mekelle.