The Ethiopian government claims to have captured Tigrayan City from rebels.
Ethiopia’s government said on Wednesday that its military had seized a city in southern Tigray from Tigrayan fighters, marking the country’s first substantial progress within the war-torn area in months and dimming hopes for peace after a rebel withdrawal.
The Tigray People’s Liberation Front, which announced its pullout from the Amhara and Afar areas this week and asked for a cease-fire, did not immediately respond to the government’s assertions.
According to the government’s information agency, “the valiant Ethiopian Defence Forces and the Amhara region security forces have secured Alamata city after sweeping the enemy army…,” implying that battle will continue.
“The Ethiopian National Defence Forces and the security forces of the Amhara area, which are… eliminating the fleeing terrorist clique, are moving on Abergele,” the administration claimed, referring to a Tigray district.
Although unverified, the TPLF’s withdrawal from Amhara and Afar sparked expectations for peace negotiations to end the harsh 13-month battle, which has killed thousands and caused a humanitarian catastrophe with hundreds of people on the verge of hunger.
Both sides have claimed significant territory advances in recent months, with the rebels claiming to be barely 200 kilometers (125 miles) from the capital Addis Abeba at one point.
However, since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, went to the front last month, the government has claimed to have retaken a number of vital towns, according to state media.
The government saw the TPLF’s pullout declaration on Monday as a cover-up for military losses.
Communications have been disrupted in the combat zone, and journalists’ access has been limited, making it impossible to verify battlefield allegations.
TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael expressed optimism for a “decisive opening for peace” in a letter to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres this week.
However, an African Union-led attempt to mediate a cease-fire has so far failed to produce a breakthrough.
The TPLF had previously refused to leave Amhara and Afar until the government removed what they called Tigray’s humanitarian “siege.”
Aid workers have regularly complained that security and logistical barriers are hampering entry to the disaster-stricken area, where an estimated 400,000 people are on the edge of starvation.
In October, the UN also banned humanitarian flights from Addis Abeba to Tigray’s capital, Mekele, due to a government airstrike campaign in the area. The flights were reintroduced in November.
As combat erupted in October and worries of a rebel march on Addis Abeba grew, concerned foreign countries encouraged their nationals to leave Ethiopia as quickly as possible last month.
According to UN estimates, the war in Africa’s second-most populous country has displaced more than two million people, and more than nine million people need food aid.
There have been claims of killings, mass rapes, and other crimes on both sides, and the UN Human Rights Council last week authorized an investigation into a broad variety of alleged violations, which Addis Abeba denounced.
The conflict began in November of last year when Abiy ordered soldiers into Tigray to depose the TPLF, the region’s dominant party that had dominated national politics for three decades until he won office in 2018.
He accused its militants of storming army bases and promised a quick triumph. However, the TPLF staged a stunning counterattack, retaking most of Tigray by June and then marching into Afar and Amhara.
Western Tigray, which is claimed by both Tigrayans and Amharas, has been held by Amhara troops since the conflict began, causing widespread displacement and prompting US fears of ethnic cleansing.