Ethiopian federal troops are closing in on Tigray’s capital of Mekelle, Redwan Hussein, the government spokesperson for the state of emergency task force, told CNN on Wednesday.
As the fighting between Ethiopian and Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) soldiers rages in the region for a second week, Redwan said that national defense forces have now taken control of Shire, northwest of Mekelle, and Alamata, south of the city.
“They are closing in but it will take about 100-200 km from several directions,” the spokesman said.
The Ethiopian government says TPLF forces destroyed four bridges on the road to Mekelle to stop national forces from advancing.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed launched a military offensive in the restive Tigray region on November 4 after accusing its ruling party, the TPLF, of attacking a federal army base in the northern region, which borders Eritrea and Sudan.
After announcing that it was “at war” with the TPLF, the federal army has since stepped up its military offensive, carrying out air strikes as part of Prime Minister and Nobel laureate Abiy’s “law enforcement operation,” which has led to clashes across the area.
Airstrikes near Mekelle are targeting military installations and no civilians have been killed, “as far as we know,” said Redwan. He accused TPLF forces of sheltering military equipment in schools, mosques and churches.
He provided no evidence to support the claim and CNN has been unable to able to verify due to a blackout on communications in the region.
Vow to fight on
Leaders in Tigray are refusing to surrender in the face of the alleged gains by the Ethiopian military.
In a statement posted by the TPLF on Facebook Wednesday, Tigrayan leaders vowed that “the people of Tigray will never kneel down to actions of aggressors,” as Abiy said that the deadline for them to surrender had expired.
“Tigray is now a hell to its enemies,” the statement read, claiming “remarkable victories” on the battlegrounds, directly contradicting the government claims.
The Tigrayan leaders also accused federal forces of killing innocent civilians while targeting churches and homes.
The government has denied targeting civilians and CNN has not been able to verify claims from either parties due to the communications blackout.
Hundreds of thousands of people in western Tigray have been displaced while internet, electricity and banking services continue to be shut down, the statement said. It added that since the fighting began, Tigray forces have managed to capture enemy tanks and heavy artillery.
“Tigray will be the graveyard of dictators and aggressors and not their playground,” the statement concluded.
In response, Billene Seyoum, the Ethiopian government spokesperson, told CNN that Ethiopia’s parliament had disbanded the government in Tigray, so they couldn’t respond.
“We cannot respond to statements on a Facebook page of an entity that does not exist,” she said.
A humanitarian crisis
The United Nations is warning that delivery of humanitarian supplies into the region “remains impossible.”
“The protection of populations impacted by the conflict remains an overarching humanitarian concern,” said its latest humanitarian report.
For its part, the Ethiopian government has sent missions into Amhara and Tigray to identify safe corridors for humanitarian access, said Redwan.
More than 30,000 Ethiopian refugees have crossed into neighboring Sudan to escape the conflict, according to the UN.
“The situation is escalating and thousands of people are internally displaced, without access to basic food and necessities,” George Readings, lead crisis analyst at the International Rescue Committee, told CNN. “The clock is ticking and we envisage internal displacement to become even worse in coming weeks.”
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said more than 1,000 people have contacted its hotline and visited its offices in Mekelle and Addis Ababa seeking help for their families.
“As fighting continues, we are seeing a devastating humanitarian crisis unfold, not just within Ethiopia but across its borders,” said Katia Sorin, ICRC’s head of delegation in Addis Ababa, in a statement on Wednesday. “Thousands are crossing into Sudan seeking safety, and an untold number are displaced from their homes inside Ethiopia.”
The humanitarian organization, based in Geneva, has provided hospital beds, mattresses, mats and blankets to health facilities. The Gondor Teaching Hospital in northern Ethiopia has been receiving large numbers of critically injured patients while also dealing with Covid-19 patients, the ICRC said.
Minnesota Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar, a member of the progressive Squad in Congress, sent a letter to Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg on Tuesday condemning the social media company’s role in the ongoing violence in Ethiopia.
“Sometimes genocidal hate speech that is being propagated in many languages by many actors, both inside Ethiopia and abroad, has found a viral audience on your platform, and has almost certainly contributed directly to the massacres of civilians based on their ethnicities,” she wrote.
She echoed the words of the UN by adding that Ethiopia has “a very real chance of collapsing into one of the worst human rights and humanitarian crises in the world.”