Ethiopian forces have captured two towns from rebel forces in the northern Tigray region, the government said, as fighting continues to escalate into a two-week war that has triggered a growing humanitarian emergency.
A government statement said Friday that Ethiopian troops had taken the towns of Axum and Adwa.
Hundreds, possibly thousands of people have been killed in the conflict between the rebels of the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) and the central government and tens of thousands of refugees have fled fighting in Tigray.
The conflict erupted two weeks ago after what Prime Minister Abiy Ahmeds’s government called a TPLF attack on the army stationed in the region.
The government said its forces are now advancing towards the town of Adigrat, about 120km (75 miles) north of Mekelle, the regional capital of Tigray and home to about half a million people.
Many junta fighters have surrendered, the statement said, referring to the TPLF.
It has been impossible to verify the allegations from all sides because telephone lines and internet connections with Tigray have been cut off since the conflict began.
Al Jazeera Mohammed Adow, reporting from Addis Ababa, said the capture of Axum and Adwa would be significant achievements for the Abiy-led government.
These two cities are a big part of this country’s history, Adow said.
Adow added that Axum was part of the Axumite Kingdom, of which many Ethiopians are very proud, while Adwa was the site of an Ethiopian victory in the war against the Italians in 1839.
Ethiopian government forces are fighting in the direction of Mekelle from several directions.
Meanwhile, in a televised speech Friday, Getachew Reda, a spokesman for President Tigray, said their fighters had inflicted heavy casualties on Raya, south of Mekelle.
Tigrajan fighters also eliminated enemy forces from Mehoni in the south and Zalambessa in the northeast, Tigrayan TV said.
Reda also claimed responsibility for a rocket attack in the early hours of Friday at an airport in a neighboring region.
The rocket attack on Bahir Dar, the capital of the Amhara region, raised concerns that the conflict could spiral into a wider war.
Reda said it was in retaliation for the bombings launched from there.
We will continue to target any airport that has been used to stage an attack on Tigray, he said.
The Amhara government communications office said the missiles caused no damage.
UN chief Antonio Guterres on Friday called for the opening of humanitarian corridors to help civilians captured in the fighting in the Tigray region, noting that authorities had so far rejected mediation efforts.
We are very concerned about the situation in Ethiopia, the secretary general told reporters in New York, warning of a dramatic humanitarian impact involving neighboring Sudan.
We have called for full compliance with international humanitarian law and also for the opening of humanitarian corridors and instructions that may be needed for humanitarian aid to be distributed to conflict areas, he said, without specifying where such corridors can be found.
The UN said it was making plans for about 200,000 refugees fleeing to neighboring Sudan.
Axel Bisschop of the UN refugee agency UNHCR said at a conference in Geneva that 31,000 refugees had already reached Sudan, exceeding an extraordinary plan for 20,000.
The new planning figure is about 200,000, Bisschop said.
UNICEF Representative in Sudan Abdullah Fadil, concerned about the effect in Sudan, already expecting one million refugees from other African wars.
“Our serious concern is that if we do not act quickly with the necessary resources, this could solve not only Ethiopia but also Sudan,” he told the same conference.
Ethiopia, a federation of 10 ethnic regions, was dominated for decades by the Tigrayans in a ruling coalition led by the TPLF, until Abiy, who is originally from the Amhara and Oromo, took power two years ago. He says he intends to share authority more fairly.
The TPLF accuses him of pursuing a retaliation against former officials.
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