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Ethiopian forces launch assault on capital of rebel stronghold

Military surrounds Mekele as thousands find refuge in Sudan


Attack: Militia members from Ethiopia’s Amhara region ride to face the TPLF. Photo: Reuters

Attack: Militia members from Ethiopia’s Amhara region ride to face the TPLF. Photo: Reuters

Attack: Militia members from Ethiopia’s Amhara region ride to face the TPLF. Photo: Reuters

Ethiopian forces have launched the “final” assault on the capital of the northern Tigray region, the country’s prime minister said yesterday.

Devastating fighting is expected as military officials claim they have surrounded the city of Mekele with tanks and heavy artillery.

Abiy Ahmed, the prime minister, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019, commands one of Africa’s most powerful armies, with tens of thousands of soldiers, Russian-made MiG fighter jets and robust artillery units.

Set against the federal forces are the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), a regional government with battle-hardened fighters and strong military leadership.

A civil war has been raging across the northern, mountainous region of Africa’s second-most populous nation since November 4, when Mr Abiy suddenly sent in federal forces to crush the TPLF.

Mr Abiy said the military would try not to harm civilians or historic sites in Mekele.

But a full-scale attack on the city of more than 300,000 people could lead to the deaths of thousands in punishing urban warfare. Tigrayan forces have said they will not surrender. They fought Haile Selassie, the former Emperor of Ethiopia, in the 1930s and overthrew the country’s Marxist dictatorship in 1991. Debretsion Gebremichael, the leader of the TPLF, has said that Tigray forces are “ready to die in defence of our right to administer our region”.

The TPLF fighters are mainly drawn from a paramilitary unit and a well-trained militia thought to contain about 250,000 soldiers. However, this number is impossible to verify.

The regional government has mobilised Mekele residents, according to a diplomatic source.

“They are digging trenches and everyone has an AK-47,” the insider said. Both the TPLF and the federal government have blamed each other for carrying out mass ethnic killings in Tigray.

A general communications blackout in Tigray for the last three weeks and the fact that neither humanitarians nor journalists have had independent access to the region makes it difficult to verify events.

However, tens of thousands of refugees from Tigray have flooded into neighbouring Sudan since the conflict erupted three weeks ago.

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In interviews, dozens have claimed that civilian areas have been shelled indiscriminately and militias accompanying the federal forces are carrying out murders.

Mr Abiy’s announcement comes after a deadline he gave for Tigray fighters to surrender passed on Wednesday.

Fearful of international condemnation, the Ethiopian government has tried to spin the conflict as a law enforcement operation.

However, the United Nations and Human Rights Watch have warned of possible war crimes charges if the Ethiopian army attacks Mekele.
The UN refugee agency has warned that a “full-scale humanitarian crisis” is unfolding in Tigray, and there are fears that food and water may be running out in this province of six million.

The TPLF leadership has insisted that government forces have suffered several defeats. The Ethiopian government has countered by reporting surrenders among TPLF forces. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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