Abiy Ahmed announces end of military operations in Tigray region after army says it is in ‘full control’ of Mekelle; TPLF vows to keep fighting.
Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has announced the ending of military operations in the northern Tigray region after the army said it was in “full control” of the regional capital, Mekelle.
Since November 3, the Ethiopian government has been trying to quell a rebellion by a powerful ethnic faction in a war that has shaken the Horn of Africa. Thousands of people are believed to have died and nearly one million forced from their homes, including some 43,000 refugees who fled to neighbouring Sudan.
“I am pleased to share that we have completed and ceased the military operations in the Tigray region,” Abiy said on Twitter on Saturday.
“Our focus now will be on rebuilding the region and providing humanitarian assistance while Federal Police apprehend the TPLF clique,” he said, referring to the leaders of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), whose forces have been fighting federal troops for more than three weeks.
Hours later, TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael said the heavily armed rebellious Tigrayan forces will keep fighting the government.
“Their brutality can only add (to) our resolve to fight these invaders to the last,” he told the Reuters news agency in a text message. Asked if that meant his forces will continue fighting, he replied: “Certainly. This is about defending our right to self determination.”
Mekelle under command of the National Defense Forces pic.twitter.com/rj8GbK3ii8
— Abiy Ahmed Ali 🇪🇹 (@AbiyAhmedAli) November 28, 2020
Hours earlier, Ethiopian army chief General Birhanu Jula was quoted as saying by the Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation that the government forces “completely controlled Mekelle”, adding that 7,000 members of the army’s Northern Command who were held hostage by the TPLF had been freed.
The government had given the TPLF an ultimatum that expired on Wednesday to surrender or face an assault on Mekelle, a city of 500,000 people.
Abiy announced on Thursday he had ordered a “final” offensive against the TPLF. Earlier on Saturday, Debretsion had said Mekelle was under “heavy bombardment”. A diplomat in direct contact with residents also said federal forces had begun an offensive to capture Mekelle.
Claims from all sides are difficult to verify since phone and internet links to Tigray have been cut and access has been tightly controlled since fighting began on November 4.
Al Jazeera’s Malcolm Webb, reporting from neighbouring Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, said the developments late on Saturday suggested “that the large numbers of fighters and substantial military hardware that the TPLF is widely believed to control had actually already been tactically retreated into the nearby mountains”.
He added: “It would appear that they’ve chosen not to use the resources that they have to fight to control the city. This would certainly be a relief for many people – rights groups and others have been warning about a potential disaster if there had been heavy fighting and shelling on the city.”
The heavily armed TPLF has long experience fighting in the region’s rugged terrain, and some experts had warned of a drawn-out conflict.
A TPLF official told Al Jazeera earlier this week that the fall of Mekelle would not spell the end of their fight.
“Our forces still control much of rural Tigray, and our governing structure remains intact in these areas,” said Fesseha Tessema. “There’s no military solution, only a negotiated political one.”
Some Ethiopians at home and in the diaspora rejoiced at the news that Mekele was under the military’s control. “Thanks to the Almighty God our creator. Amen. Let peace prevail in Ethiopia!!!” former Prime Minister Hailemariam Dessalegn tweeted.
The fighting has threatened to cause a massive humanitarian crisis, as well as destabilise Ethiopia and the wider Horn of Africa region.
Abiy accused the TPLF of starting the war by attacking federal troops at a base in Tigray. The TPLF said the attack was a pre-emptive strike.
Launched as a fledgeling fighting group in the 1970s, the TPLF led a movement that came to power in 1991 after overthrowing the Communist government of Mengistu Haile Mariam. It established a multi-ethnic governing coalition that was dominated by ethnic Tigrayans for decades.
That changed in 2018, when Abiy took office after mass anti-government protests. Since then, TPLF leaders have complained that they have been unfairly targeted, marginalised and blamed for the country’s ills.