Ethiopia military will begin the “final phase” of an offensive in the rebellious northern Tigray region, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said on Thursday, hours after an ultimatum for Tigray forces to surrender expired.
The Ethiopian government gave the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) 72 hours starting from Sunday to lay down their arms or face an assault on Mekelle, the regional capital of 500,000 people.
“The 72-hour period granted to the criminal TPLF clique to surrender peacefully is now over and our law enforcement campaign has reached its final stage,” Ahmed tweeted, adding that civilians would be spared and that thousands of fighters had already surrendered. The TPLF has denied its fighters are surrendering.
“The last peaceful gate which remained open for the TPLF clique to walk through has now been firmly closed,” Ahmed said.
Ahmed, who won the Nobel peace prize last year for ending a long-running stand-off with Eritrea, called on the people of Mekelle to “disarm, stay at home, and stay away from military targets.”
“Our National Defence Forces have carefully devised a strategy to bring the TPLF criminal clique to justice without harming innocent civilians, heritage sites, places of worship, development institutions and property,” he added.
The conflict pits Ethiopia’s federal government against the TPLF, which dominated the country until Ahmed took power two years ago. Tigrayans make up about 6% of Ethiopia’s population.
Ahmed accuses Tigrayan leaders of starting hostilities by attacking federal troops. The rebels said Ahmed’s government has marginalised Tigrayans.
African envoys went to Ethiopia to plead for peace on Wednesday, hours before the ultimatum was to expire.
On Wednesday, Human Rights Watch said both sides must avoid putting civilians in danger. The government’s warning did not absolve it of the duty to protect civilians when conducting military operations in the city of Mekelle, the watchdog said.
“We are also concerned by reports that the TPLF has deployed its forces in heavily populated areas. They need to ensure the safety of civilians under their control,” it added.
Thousands of people have reportedly died and there have been widespread destruction from aerial bombardment and ground fighting since 4 November when the military operations started. Nearly 43,000 people have fled the clashes to Sudan.