A surrender deadline for Tigray forces is just hours away with Ethiopia’s military threatening to bombard the regional capital – a city of half a million people.
Ethiopia’s prime minister on Wednesday rejected growing international demands for dialogue and a halt to deadly fighting in the northern Tigray region as “interference”, saying his country will handle the conflict on its own as the 72-hour surrender ultimatum expires at 16:30 GMT.
“We respectfully urge the international community to refrain from any unwelcome and unlawful acts of interference,” a statement from Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s office said as government forces encircled the Tigray capital, Mekelle, with tanks.
“The international community should stand by until the government of Ethiopia submits its requests for assistance to the community of nations. We reject any interference in our internal affairs.”
A news agency in Ethiopia’s Amhara region, meanwhile, reported more than 10,000 Tigrayan troops had been “destroyed” during the three-week conflict raging in the mountainous north.
The report by the regional government-run AMMA agency in Amhara, where authorities back Abiy’s federal forces, could not be verified and there was no immediate response from the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
Abiy, last year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, insists on calling the conflict a “law enforcement operation” while his ultimatum for TPLF leaders to surrender ends ahead of a final push to arrest them.
Abiy’s government has warned Mekelle’s residents to move away from TPLF leaders and military installations saying there will be “no mercy” – language the United Nations human rights chief and others have warned could lead to “further violations of international humanitarian law”.
Communications remain almost completely severed to the Tigray region of some six million people and it is not clear how many people in Mekelle are aware of the warnings and the threat of artillery fire.
Diplomats on Tuesday said UN Security Council members in a closed-door meeting expressed support for an African Union-led effort to deploy three high-level envoys to Ethiopia.
Three AU envoys – former Presidents Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia and Kgalema Motlanthe of South Africa – were due to arrive in Addis Ababa on Wednesday, two diplomatic sources told the Reuters news agency.
The European Union foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, said late on Tuesday the fighting is seriously destabilising the region and hostilities should halt.
“I expressed my great concern regarding increasing ethnic-targeted violence, numerous casualties, and violations of human rights and of international humanitarian law,” said Borrell after speaking to Ethiopia’s foreign minister.
Tigray’s regional leader Debretsion Gebremichael could not immediately be reached for comment on Wednesday.
The TPLF dominated Ethiopia’s government for more than a quarter-century but was sidelined after Abiy took office in 2018 and sought to centralise power in a country long ruled along ethnic lines. The TPLF opted out when Abiy dissolved the ruling coalition, then infuriated the federal government by holding an election in September after a national vote was postponed by COVID-19. Each side now regards the other as illegal.
The international community has urgently called for communications to be restored to the Tigray region so warring sides’ claims can be investigated, and so food and other desperately needed supplies can be sent as hunger grows.
The United Nations says it has been unable to send supplies into Tigray since the fighting began on November 4, when Abiy accused the TPLF of attacking a military base.
Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people have been killed in three weeks of fighting. More than 40,000 refugees have fled into Sudan. Nearly 100,000 Eritrean refugees at camps in northern Tigray have come close to the line of fire.
Misery continues for the refugees in Sudan, with little food, little medicine, little shelter, little funding and little or no contact with loved ones left behind in Tigray. “We are absolutely not ready,” said Suleiman Ali Mousa, the governor of Gadarif province.
“Help us so that we don’t die,” said one refugee, Terhas Adiso. “We came from war. We were scared we were going to die from the war and we came here, we don’t want to die of hunger, disease. If they are going to help us they need to help us quickly. That’s all I am going to say.”
Meanwhile, reports continue of alleged targeting of ethnic Tigrayans, even outside Ethiopia. Three soldiers serving with the UN peacekeeping force in South Sudan were ordered home over the weekend, the forces said in a statement
Abiy’s government said it aims to protect civilians, including Tigrayans, but reports continue of arrests, discrimination, house-to-house searches and frozen bank accounts.
In Somalia, Ethiopia has disarmed several hundred Tigrayans in an AU peacekeeping force fighting al-Qaeda-linked fighters.
On Tuesday, Ethiopia’s state-appointed human rights watchdog accused a Tigrayan youth group of killing about 600 civilians as federal and local forces both claimed advances in the war.
It is impossible to verify statements made by either side since phone and internet connections to Tigray are down and access to the area is strictly controlled.