Forces battling Ethiopia’s federal government have vowed to continue the fight in the north of the country, despite a 72-hour ultimatum to surrender from Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, raising fears of further bloodshed in a conflict that threatens to destabilize the Horn of Africa.
“We are not concerned about timing, we are concerned about our final complete success,” said the president of the Tigray region, Debretsion Gebremichael, on Tigray TV Monday night.
On Sunday, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister warned members of the the region’s ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), to surrender “within the next 72 hours, recognizing that you are at a point of no return.”
But TPLF spokesperson Getachew Reda claimed their forces were putting up a strong fight on the frontlines and suggested that if the regional capital of Mekelle were captured by federal forces, the TPLF would simply change strategies to recapture fallen cities. “We will never let him stay safe for one minute,” Reda said Monday on Tigray TV.
On Tuesday, Getachew, told Tigray TV that a prestigious Ethiopian army unit — which he termed the 21st mechanized division — had been “completely destroyed” in an assault at Raya-Wahirat led by a former commander of that unit who defected to the TPLF side, Reuters reported.
Billene Seyoum, the prime minister’s spokeswoman, told Reuters that was not true.
CNN has not been able to verify statements made by either side due to a regional communications blackout.
Government forces say they are currently closing in on Mekelle ahead of a promised “final phase” of the military operation there following a stark warning to Tigrayan forces to surrender.
Video: Polisario: War has been imposed on us (CNN)
The federal military said the third and final phase of the military operation includes plans to surround the regional capital Mekelle with tanks, warning civilians to beware of artillery.
Ethiopia’s federal government declared “war” on the TPLF earlier this month. Abiy, a Nobel laureate, ordered the Ethiopian Defense Forces (EDF) to lead a “law enforcement operation” in the area, which includes air strikes.
The conflict threatens to undo years of progress in Africa’s second most populous country and the restive Horn of Africa region.
Hundreds have died and nearly 39,000 refugees have fled to neigboring Sudan, including 17,000 children according to the UN. Humanitarian organizations are struggling to provide services amid the tsunami of refugees.
“The response is scaling up, but the influx of arrivals is outpacing the capacity on the ground and additional funding is urgently needed,” said the spokesperson for the UN Secretary-General, Stéphane Dujarric, in a press briefing on Monday.
The conflict has spread to Eritrea, where the TPLF has fired rockets, and also affected Somalia where Ethiopia has disarmed several hundred Tigrayans in a peacekeeping force fighting al Qaeda-linked militants.
Cyril Ramaphosa, the president of South Africa and chairperson of the African Union, met the president of Ethiopia, Sahle-Work Zewde on Friday.
“I appreciate the readiness of the federal government of Ethiopia to work with the AU and receive the envoys to find a peaceful resolution to this conflict,” Ramaphosa said in a tweet following the meeting.
The European Union, United States and United Kingdom have urged de-escalation since the conflict began.