Government forces in Ethiopia began an offensive to capture the regional capital Mekelle in the rebellious northern Tigray region on Saturday.
The government said its military campaign is in its final stages after it gave the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) an ultimatum that expired on Wednesday to lay down arms or face an assault on Mekelle, a city of 500,000 people.
Debretsion Gebremichael, leader of the TPLF, told Reuters that Mekelle was under “heavy bombardment”. The Ethiopian military is using artillery in the assault, he said.
Billene Seyoum, a spokeswoman for the prime minister’s office, said: “The Ethiopian National Defense Forces do not have a mission to bombard its own city and people. Mekelle remains one of Ethiopia’s key cities and the efforts to bring to justice the criminal clique will not entail discriminatory ‘bombardment’ as alluded by TPLF and their propagandists.”
She added, “The safety of Ethiopians in Mekelle and Tigray region continues as priority for the federal government”.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed told African peace envoys on Friday that his government will protect civilians in Tigray. The prime minister has said he regards the conflict as an internal matter and his government has so far rebuffed attempts at mediation.
Thousands of people are believed to have died and around 43,000 refugees have fled to neighbouring Sudan. The northern region of Tigray also borders the nation of Eritrea.
Tigrayans, who make up about 6% of Ethiopia’s 115 million population, dominated the government until Abiy took power two years ago.
Abiy pledged to unite Ethiopians and introduce freedoms after years of state repression that filled jails with tens of thousands of political prisoners. His government also put senior Tigrayan officials on trial for crimes such as corruption, torture and murder. The Tigrayan region saw those trials as discrimination.