Reuters . Thu, November 26, 2020, 7:39 AM GMT+1
ADDIS ABABA/NAIROBI (Reuters) – The Ethiopian military will begin the “final phase” of an offensive in the rebellious northern Tigray region, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said on Thursday, hours after an ultimatum for Tigray forces to surrender expired.
The government gave the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) 72 hours on Sunday to lay down their arms or face an assault on Mekelle, the regional capital of 500,000 people.
Rights groups raised concerns for civilians caught up in military operations in which thousands are already believed to have died since fighting began on Nov. 4.
Reuters was not immediately able to reach the TPLF for comment. Claims by all sides have been impossible to verify because phone and internet connections to the region are down and access to the area is tightly controlled.
“The 72-hour period granted to the criminal TPLF clique to surrender peacefully is now over and our law enforcement campaign has reached its final stage,” Abiy tweeted, adding that civilians would be spared and thousands of fighters had already surrendered. The TPLF has denied its fighters are surrendering.
Abiy’s office said authorities had begun distributing aid in areas under the control of the federal government in the Tigray region. Four camps for displaced persons were being established.
A statement added: “This humanitarian assistance will now be further reinforced with the opening of a humanitarian access route to be managed under the auspices of the Ministry of Peace.”
Nearly 43,000 Ethiopian refugees have fled over the border to Sudan, though the flow has dropped from many thousands per day to several hundred in the past few days, according to data from the U.N. refugee agency analysed by Reuters.
Ethiopian refugees arriving in Sudan have told aid workers that other Ethiopians fleeing fighting have been prevented from crossing, two humanitarian sources told Reuters.
It was not immediately clear who in Ethiopia was blocking the refugees from crossing, one of the sources said. “As far as we know, the border remains open,” the U.N. humanitarian coordinator in Ethiopia, Catherine Sozi, told Reuters.
Abiy has said refugees are welcome to return. An aid worker at the border crossing point of Hamdayet, in Sudan, said they witnessed Ethiopian soldiers on Wednesday “screaming” at refugees that it was safe to return home.
Abiy, who won the Nobel peace prize last year for ending a long-running stand-off with Eritrea, called on the people of Mekelle to “disarm, stay at home and stay away from military targets”.
“Our National Defence Forces have carefully devised a strategy to bring the TPLF criminal clique to justice without harming innocent civilians, heritage sites, places of worship, development institutions and property,” he added.
A diplomatic source said the TPLF “have mobilised lots of people in Mekelle. They are digging trenches and everyone has an AK47.”
Tigrayan forces have large stocks of military hardware and number up to 250,000 men, experts say.
African peace envoys sent to Ethiopia were expected to meet Abiy on Friday, two diplomatic sources said.
The conflict pits Ethiopia’s federal government against the TPLF, which dominated the country until Abiy took power two years ago.
Abiy accuses Tigrayan leaders of starting hostilities by attacking federal troops. The rebels say his government has marginalised Tigrayans, who make up about 6% of Ethiopia’s population.
Thousands of people are already thought to have died and there has been widespread destruction from aerial bombardment and ground fighting since the war began. TPLF rockets have hit the capital of neighbouring Eritrea.
Daniel Bekele, head of the state-appointed Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, said “extreme caution to avoid civilian harm is of even greater importance, now, at this stage of the conflict”.
On Wednesday, Human Rights Watch said both sides must avoid putting civilians in danger. The government’s warning did not absolve it of the duty to protect civilians when conducting military operations in Mekelle, it said.
(Reporting by Addis Ababa newsroom, Omar Mohammed, David Lewis and Aidan Lewis; Writing by Katharine Houreld and Giles Elgood; Editing by Tom Hogue, Raju Gopalakrishnan, William Maclean)