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Ethiopia PM gives Tigray forces 72 hours to surrender regional capital

Reuters logo Reuters 2020-11-22
a man wearing a suit and tie smiling at the camera: FILE PHOTO: Ethiopia's PM Ahmed waits for the arrival of EC President von der Leyen before their meeting in Addis Ababa © Reuters/TIKSA NEGERI FILE PHOTO: Ethiopia's PM Ahmed waits for the arrival of EC President von der Leyen before their meeting in Addis Ababa

ADDIS ABABA/NAIROBI (Reuters) - Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed gave Tigrayan regional forces 72 hours to surrender before the military begins an offensive on the regional capital of Mekelle.

a man standing in front of a sunset: An Ethiopian woman who fled the ongoing fighting in Tigray region, carries her child near the Setit river on the Sudan-Ethiopia border in Hamdayet village in eastern Kassala state © Reuters/MOHAMED NURELDIN ABDALLAH An Ethiopian woman who fled the ongoing fighting in Tigray region, carries her child near the Setit river on the Sudan-Ethiopia border in Hamdayet village in eastern Kassala state

"We urge you to surrender peacefully within 72 hours, recognising that you are at the point of no return," Abiy said in a message posted on Twitter on Sunday evening.

a group of people standing in front of a crowd posing for the camera: Ethiopians who fled the ongoing fighting in Tigray region, gather in Hamdayet village near the Sudan-Ethiopia border, eastern Kassala state © Reuters/MOHAMED NURELDIN ABDALLAH Ethiopians who fled the ongoing fighting in Tigray region, gather in Hamdayet village near the Sudan-Ethiopia border, eastern Kassala state

Tigrayan forces could not immediately be reached for comment.

A military spokesman said earlier that advancing Ethiopian troops plan to surround Mekelle with tanks and may shell the city to force surrender.

The Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), which is refusing to surrender its rule of the northern region, said its forces were digging trenches and standing firm.

Reuters could not confirm the latest statements on the war. Claims by all sides are hard to verify because phone and internet communication has been down.

a group of people on a boat in the water: Ethiopians who fled the ongoing fighting in Tigray region, use boats to cross the Setit river on the Sudan-Ethiopia border in Hamdayet village in eastern Kassala state © Reuters/MOHAMED NURELDIN ABDALLAH Ethiopians who fled the ongoing fighting in Tigray region, use boats to cross the Setit river on the Sudan-Ethiopia border in Hamdayet village in eastern Kassala state

Abiy's federal troops have taken a string of towns during aerial bombardments and ground fighting, and are now aiming for Mekelle, a highland city of about 500,000 people where the rebels are based.

The conflict erupted on Nov. 4 and has killed hundreds, possibly thousands, and has sent more than 30,000 refugees into neighbouring Sudan. Rockets have been fired by rebels into neighbouring Amhara region and across the border into the nation of Eritrea.

Foreign nations have urged talks, but Abiy has pressed on with the offensive.

a group of people walking down a dirt road: Ethiopians who fled the ongoing fighting in Tigray region, carry their belongings from a boat after crossing the Setit river on the Sudan-Ethiopia border in Hamdayet village in eastern Kassala state © Reuters/MOHAMED NURELDIN ABDALLAH Ethiopians who fled the ongoing fighting in Tigray region, carry their belongings from a boat after crossing the Setit river on the Sudan-Ethiopia border in Hamdayet village in eastern Kassala state

In his statement on Sunday evening, Abiy said that during what he terms a law enforcement operation "all the necessary precautionary measures have been taken to ensure that civilians are not harmed".

Referring to the TPLF, he said that "all that the clique is left with is the fort that they have set up in Mekelle and empty pride".

He said the people of Tigray had had enough of what he said was TPLF violence against them, and appealed to the people of Mekelle to stand with the federal troops in "bringing this treasonous group" to justice.

Abiy accuses the Tigrayan leaders of revolting against central authority and starting the conflict by attacking federal troops in the town of Dansha on Nov. 4.

a person standing next to a body of water: An Ethiopian fleeing the ongoing fighting in Tigray region, lifts his clothes as he crosses the Setit river on the Sudan-Ethiopia border in Hamdayet village in eastern Kassala state © Reuters/MOHAMED NURELDIN ABDALLAH An Ethiopian fleeing the ongoing fighting in Tigray region, lifts his clothes as he crosses the Setit river on the Sudan-Ethiopia border in Hamdayet village in eastern Kassala state

The rebels say his government has marginalised Tigrayans since taking office two years ago, removing them from senior roles in government and the military and detaining many on rights abuse and corruption charges.

'DECISIVE PART OF THE OPERATION'

Earlier on Sunday, military spokesman Colonel Dejene Tsegaye told state-run Ethiopia Broadcasting Corporation that "the next phases are the decisive part of the operation, which is to encircle Mekelle using tanks".

a person holding a kite while standing in the dirt: An Ethiopian woman who fled the ongoing fighting in Tigray region, carries a jerrycan of water after crossing in Hamdayet village on the Sudan-Ethiopia border, eastern Kassala state © Reuters/MOHAMED NURELDIN ABDALLAH An Ethiopian woman who fled the ongoing fighting in Tigray region, carries a jerrycan of water after crossing in Hamdayet village on the Sudan-Ethiopia border, eastern Kassala state

He said the TPLF leadership was "shielding itself within the public" and said: "We want to send a message to the public in Mekelle to save yourselves from any artillery attacks and free yourselves from the junta ... After that, there will be no mercy."

A spokeswoman from the prime minister's office later said Dejene meant there would be "no mercy" for the TPLF leadership rather than for civilians.

a group of people that are eating some food: Ethiopians who fled the ongoing fighting in Tigray region, eat a meal in Hamdayet village on the Sudan-Ethiopia border, eastern Kassala state © Reuters/MOHAMED NURELDIN ABDALLAH Ethiopians who fled the ongoing fighting in Tigray region, eat a meal in Hamdayet village on the Sudan-Ethiopia border, eastern Kassala state

TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael told Reuters by text message that his forces were resisting a push from the south while also fighting near the northern town of Adigrat after it fell to federal troops.

a group of people riding on the back of a boat: Ethiopians who fled the ongoing fighting in Tigray region, cook in the open in Hamdayet village near the Sudan-Ethiopia border, eastern Kassala state © Reuters/MOHAMED NURELDIN ABDALLAH Ethiopians who fled the ongoing fighting in Tigray region, cook in the open in Hamdayet village near the Sudan-Ethiopia border, eastern Kassala state

"Encircling Mekelle is their plan but yet they couldn't," he said. "On south front, they couldn't move an inch for more than one week. They (are) sending waves after waves but to no avail."

a group of people sitting around a bunch of stuffed animals: Ethiopians who fled the ongoing fighting in Tigray region, gather in Hamdayet village near the Setit river on the Sudan-Ethiopia border in eastern Kassala state © Reuters/MOHAMED NURELDIN ABDALLAH Ethiopians who fled the ongoing fighting in Tigray region, gather in Hamdayet village near the Setit river on the Sudan-Ethiopia border in eastern Kassala state

Abiy drew plaudits for opening up Ethiopia's closed economy and repressive political system after taking office in 2018. However, rights groups say his government has carried out mass arrests after outbreaks of violence and detained journalists this year.

a small child in a car: Ethiopians who fled the ongoing fighting in Tigray region, prepare to board a courtesy bus in Hamdayet village on the Sudan-Ethiopia border, eastern Kassala state © Reuters/MOHAMED NURELDIN ABDALLAH Ethiopians who fled the ongoing fighting in Tigray region, prepare to board a courtesy bus in Hamdayet village on the Sudan-Ethiopia border, eastern Kassala state

Abiy won a Nobel Peace Prize last year for ending a two-decade standoff with Eritrea. The awarding committee in Oslo last week made a rare foray into the activities of laureates by urging peace in Tigray.

a group of people sitting at a beach: Ethiopians who fled the ongoing fighting in Tigray region, shelter from the sun at an abandoned fuel station in Hamdayet village on the Sudan-Ethiopia border, eastern Kassala state © Reuters/MOHAMED NURELDIN ABDALLAH Ethiopians who fled the ongoing fighting in Tigray region, shelter from the sun at an abandoned fuel station in Hamdayet village on the Sudan-Ethiopia border, eastern Kassala state

Redwan Hussein, spokesman for the government's taskforce on Tigray, said there was still time for TPLF leaders to surrender. "The government will take maximum restraint not to cause major risks for civilians," he added.

a view of a mountain: An overview of destroyed buildings near Dansha airport in Dansha, Ethiopia © Reuters/MAXAR TECHNOLOGIES An overview of destroyed buildings near Dansha airport in Dansha, Ethiopia

While many Tigrayan special forces and militiamen had surrendered or scattered around Adigrat, resistance was stronger on the southern front, Redwan said, where rebels have dug up roads, destroyed bridges and booby-trapped roads.

The taskforce added that the army had also taken the small town of Idaga Hamus on the road from Adigrat to Mekelle.

(Writing by Katharine Houreld and Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Frances Kerry)

a man wearing a suit and tie smiling at the camera: FILE PHOTO: Ethiopia's PM Ahmed waits for the arrival of EC President von der Leyen before their meeting in Addis Ababa

FILE PHOTO: Ethiopia's PM Ahmed waits for the arrival of EC President von der Leyen before their meeting in Addis Ababa
© Reuters/TIKSA NEGERI
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