Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has announced the end of military operations in the northern Tigray region after the army said it was in “full control” of the regional capital, Mekelle.
Since November 4, the Ethiopian government has been trying to quell a rebellion by a powerful ethnic faction, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), in a war that has shaken the Horn of Africa. Thousands of people are believed to have died and nearly one million forced from their homes, including some 43,000 refugees who fled to neighbouring Sudan.
“I am pleased to share that we have completed and ceased the military operations in the Tigray region,” Abiy said on Twitter on Saturday.
“We now have ahead of us the critical task of rebuilding what has been destroyed; repairing what is damaged; returning those who have fled, with utmost priority of returning normalcy to the people of the Tigray region” he said, adding that federal police would continue searching for and detaining TPLF “criminals” and would bring them to court.
Hours later, TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael said the heavily armed Tigrayan forces will keep fighting the government.
“Their brutality can only add (to) our resolve to fight these invaders to the last,” he told the Reuters news agency in a text message. Asked if that meant his forces will continue fighting, he replied: “Certainly. This is about defending our right to self determination.
There was no immediate response from the government.
Abiy’s claim of victory came after the country’s army chief General Birhanu Jula announced that government forces “completely controlled Mekelle”. The Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation also quoted him saying that 7,000 members of the army’s Northern Command who were held hostage by the TPLF had been freed.
The government had given the TPLF an ultimatum that expired on Wednesday to surrender or face an assault on Mekelle, a city of 500,000 people. And Abiy announced on Thursday he had ordered a “final” offensive against the TPLF.
Earlier on Saturday, Debretsion had said Mekelle was under “heavy bombardment”. A diplomat in direct contact with residents also said federal forces had begun an offensive to capture Mekelle.
Claims from all sides are difficult to verify since phone and internet links to Tigray have been cut and access has been tightly controlled since the fighting began.
Abiy did not mention in his statements whether there had been casualties in the offensive to capture Mekelle.
Al Jazeera’s Malcolm Webb, reporting from neighbouring Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, said the developments late on Saturday suggested “that the large numbers of fighters and substantial military hardware that the TPLF is widely believed to control had actually already been tactically retreated into the nearby mountains”.
He added: “It would appear that they’ve chosen not to use the resources that they have to fight to control the city. This would certainly be a relief for many people – rights groups and others have been warning about a potential disaster if there had been heavy fighting and shelling on the city.”
A TPLF official told Al Jazeera earlier this week that the fall of Mekelle would not spell the end of their fight.
“Our forces still control much of rural Tigray, and our governing structure remains intact in these areas,” said Fesseha Tessema. “There’s no military solution, only a negotiated political one.”
The prime minister has so far rebuffed attempts at mediation. Abiy accuses Tigrayan leaders of starting the war by attacking federal troops at a base in Tigray. The TPLF says the attack was a pre-emptive strike.
The heavily armed TPLF has long experience fighting in the region’s rugged terrain, and some experts had warned of a drawn-out conflict that could destabilise the wider Horn of Africa region.
Earlier in the month, the TPLF launched missile attacks on the Eritrean capital, Asmara, accusing the neighbouring country of sending troops to back the Ethiopian army’s offensive in Tigray. Abiy’s government has denied the claim.
“This is clearly a regional war now. The Eritreans had a number of divisions on the northern border and were involved in the fighting,” Martin Plaut, senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, told Al Jazeera.
“The real question now is whether Sudan will allow aid and assistance into Tigray, including things like fuel which the Tigrayans will need if they are going to mount a guerilla war as they did for nearly two decades until 1991.”
Launched as a fledgling fighting group in the 1970s, the TPLF led a movement that came to power in 1991 after overthrowing the Communist government of Mengistu Haile Mariam. It established a multi-ethnic governing coalition that was dominated by ethnic Tigrayans for decades.
That changed in 2018 when Abiy took office after mass anti-government protests. Since then, TPLF leaders have complained that they have been unfairly targeted, marginalized and blamed for the country’s ills.
The latest conflict has threatened to cause a massive humanitarian crisis, and the United Nations has called for immediate and unimpeded access to deliver aid.
Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, on Saturday visited Sudan’s Umm Rakouba camp, which houses some 10,000 refugees, and said about $150m is needed over the next six months.
“We have seen the figure of people decline but continuing. 500 to 600 per day is not a small figure, let’s make no mistake. It is true there were days in which they were in their thousands, but it depends also on the difficulty of moving around their country and on the border,” Grandi said.
Access to Tigray is “the main obstacle at the moment,” he said, urging Abiy’s government to “grant us corridors, or whatever they call it, to provide assistance”.
Grandi also said that he was deeply concerned about the 100,000 Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia, and what he called unconfirmed reports of violence against them.
Zadig Abraha, the democratization minister, told the Associated Press news agency that “once we’ve made sure there’s no security threat,” a humanitarian corridor for that purpose will be allowed within days.
As for restoring communications to Tigray, “it depends on the kind of damage sustained,” he said.
Asked about allowing independent investigations into alleged abuses during the fighting, Zadig replied, “We have nothing to hide.”