World Looks On As Ethiopia Launches “Final Phase” of Assault on City of 500,000
Ethiopia’s prime minister announced Thursday that he had ordered the national army to launch a long-feared assault on Tigray’s regional capital Mekelle, a city of about half a million people, after a deadline for rebel leaders to surrender expired.
In a statement posted on Twitter, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced that the army had been ordered to commence the “third and final phase” of its operations against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the ruling party in the northern region. The order came after the government’s 72-hour deadline for Tigrayan fighters to lay down their weapons expired on Wednesday evening, with the TPLF leadership vowing a fight to the death in the face of any government onslaught.
“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,” Abiy tweeted.
“The last peaceful gate which remained open for the TPLF clique to walk through [has] now been firmly closed as a result of the TPLF’s contempt for the people of Ethiopia.”
Abiy, who won the Nobel peace prize last year for securing a peace deal with Eritrea, claimed that thousands of Tigrayan special forces and militia fighters had already surrendered to the government during the 72-hour window.
He urged residents of Mekelle to “disarm, stay at home and stay away from military targets,” and offered assurances that his forces would follow a strategy to bring the “TPLF criminal clique to justice” without harming civilians, places of worship and heritage sites and private property.
Those assurances have done little to assuage international concerns about the looming offensive, which has prompted a flurry of diplomatic activity to avert a potentially heavy loss of life. Three former African heads of state – Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia and Kgalema Motlanthe of South Africa – have travelled to the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa as part of an African Union delegation to try to mediate a resolution.
Meanwhile, the UN, European Union, and US President-elect Joe Biden’s appointee as national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, have all urged de-escalation in recent days.
“I’m deeply concerned about the risk of violence against civilians, including potential war crimes, in the fighting around Mekelle in Ethiopia,” Sullivan tweeted Wednesday.
There were no immediate reports of heavy fighting in Mekelle Thursday, but analysts say a communications blackout and restrictions on access to the region have made verifying the conflicting claims about the situation on the ground impossible to verify.
Ahmed Soliman, a research fellow at the Chatham House international affairs think-tank, told VICE World News that civilian casualties would be difficult to avoid if the threatened assault on Mekelle came.
“There is a real worry about what the next phase will entail given how populous Mekelle is, and the possibility of substantial loss of life,” he said. “The government claims to be exercising extreme restraint in order to prevent civilian casualties… but of course if you’re planning to open artillery on a city of 500,000 people, then that would be very difficult to maintain.”
Abiy has openly called on the people of Mekelle to abandon their support for the TPLF, and turn over the group’s leadership to government forces fighting to restore the central government’s authority.
“The optics of this is to try and lessen some of the support for the TPLF,” said Soliman. “The government has been very focused on reaching out to Tigrayans in saying ‘this is an operation against the TPLF, which has been not acting in your best interests’.”
Hundreds of people are reported to have been killed in the current violence, including about 600 civilians who Ethiopia’s state-appointed human rights watchdog says were killed in a massacre by Tigrayan youth group on the 9th of November. The fighting is threatening to destabilise the region, with more than 42,000 refugees having fled over the border to Sudan, and TPLF rockets hitting neighbouring Eritrea.