Jason Burke, Correspondent of Africa
The Ethiopian army has warned civilians in the capital of the Tigray war-torn region to be liberated from rebel leaders or to be spared in a future attack on the city.
The Ethiopian military said tanks would be deployed to surround Mekelle, the highland capital of the northern Tigray region, and that it could also use artillery in the city, state media reported on Sunday.
The ultimatum will deepen international concerns as the conflict moves into its third week with no sign that the fighting will cease any time soon.
Ethiopian forces are constantly advancing north and south towards Mekelle, which lies on a plateau at an altitude of more than 2,500 meters.
Hundreds, perhaps thousands of people have been killed in the conflict so far and many more have been displaced. More than 36,000 have fled to neighboring Sudan and large numbers are on the move inside Tigray to avoid fighting.
The warning to half a million Mekelle residents could greatly prompt them to flee their homes, adding to the growing humanitarian crisis.
The next stages are the crucial part of the operation, which is to surround Mekelle using tanks, end the battle in the mountainous areas and advance in the fields, Col Dejene Tsegaye told the Ethiopian state broadcaster.
Tsegaye said the Ethiopian military had so far avoided any target that could endanger civilian casualties but said in Mekelle’s case it could have been different.
We want to send a message to the public in Mekelle to save themselves from any artillery attack and to liberate themselves from the junta, he said, referring to the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF), the ruling party in the region. The junta is now defending itself within the public and the public must be isolated from the junta. After that, there will be no mercy.
Redwan Hussein, a spokesman for the government force for Tigray, said there was still time for the TPLF leadership to surrender. The government will exercise maximum restraint so as not to cause great danger to civilians, he added.
Debretsion Gebremichael, the leader of the TPLF, *** promised fierce fighting that would make federal forces pay for every move and warned that an attack on Mekele would not be the last game of conflict. As long as the occupation force is in Tigray, the fighting will not stop, he said.
Officials in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, have been clear that the law enforcement operation will continue until the TPLF is ousted and federal authority is restored over the region.
On Saturday, the Ethiopian government rejected an African diplomatic push to mediate.
Last week, Abiy Ahmed, the Ethiopian Prime Minister, said government forces were preparing for a final push on McClellan to end the conflict within days.
However, a confidential UN assessment of the military situation in Tigray, seen by the Guardian, suggests that Ethiopian national forces are facing greater resistance than official communications have made clear and could face a protracted withdrawal war in Tigray. .
Although regular heavily armed troops have steadily advanced towards Mekelle, paramilitaries and militias stationed on their doorstep are still struggling to clear and secure the territory, the assessment says, raising the prospect of a protracted guerrilla war.
Although Tigray regional forces may have been initially supported by EDF rapid advances, the terrain in eastern Tigray is easier to defend and if they decide, they have the ability to block EDF advance, reads an analysis, warning that this will change the dimension of the conflict from that of rapid movement to that of retreat, it says.
The information has been difficult to obtain and confirm, with cutting-edge communications for Tigray and detained journalists.
The Abiys government has claimed to have captured a number of cities in recent days, including the ancient city of Aksum and the town of Edega Hamus, 100 kilometers [60 miles] north of Mekele. This meant that federal armored columns now have a single major ridge to cross before reaching the plateau around the city.
Defense forces are currently marching on the ultimate goal of the campaigns, said Ethiopia State of Emergency Ethiopia, a government agency, said Sunday.
Ethiopian officials said resistance to federal forces was stronger on the longest route leading to Mekelle from the south, along which rebels destroyed bridges and threw hidden explosives.
The war is the culmination of several months of rising tensions between the TPLF and the ruling coalition in Addis Ababa. When the national election was canceled due to the pandemic, the TPLF held polls anyway, in a move that exacerbated tensions.
Abiy, who is the youngest African leader and won the Nobel Peace Prize last year, launched his operation after accusing the TPLF of attacking a military camp and trying to seize military equipment.
Ethiopian planes have launched airstrikes and Tigers have fired rockets into Amhara and Eritrea, which has backed the offensive to remove the TPLF. At least one massacre has been reported: it has been blamed on the withdrawal of the Tigrayan militia targeting a community seen as loyal to the central government, but there is no confirmation of this.
There are concerns that even if Abiy achieves his goal of forcing the TPLF and imposing federal authority on Tigray, the violence will continue.
Although numbering only 6 million out of a total of 110 million people living in Africa, the second most populous country, the Tigris effectively ruled Ethiopia for decades. Until Abiy took power two years ago, they were the strongest force in a multi-ethnic coalition. Abiy, whose parents are from the largest ethnic groups Oromo and Amhara, released thousands of political prisoners and vowed to end domination by one ethnic group.
Even if the EDFs are successful in their mission to take McCell, the UN assessment warns, this will not necessarily end the conflict. It is unlikely that a protracted asymmetric conflict and uprising will continue. From a humanitarian perspective, the longer the conflict is described, the more severe the crisis will become.
On Saturday, Abiy said on Twitter that the safety and well-being of the people of Tigray was of paramount importance and the federal government would do everything possible to ensure stability prevails in the Tigray region and that our citizens are free from harm and poverty.
The government-appointed head of a newly appointed interim administration for Tigray, academician Mulu Nega, said new local elections were planned to restore peace in the region after TPLF leaders were ousted.
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