Dissident leaders of Ethiopia’s war-hit Tigray have dismissed a government ceasefire declaration and vowed to drive out“enemies” from the region, after rebel fighters advanced on the Tigrayan capital last night.
In a dramatic development in the nearly eight-month-old conflict, which has been marked by large-scale atrocities, federal security forces and officials from the Addis-appointed interim government fled Mekelle last night. Residents took to the streets in jubilation, firing celebratory gunfire and fireworks into the sky.
“The capital of Tigray, Mekelle, is under our control,” Getachew Reda, the spokesperson for the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), told Reuters by satellite phone on Monday evening, as Tigrayan fighters took the city’s airport and other key positions.
A further statement overnight hailed the advances of the Tigrayan Defence Forces (TDF), and declared that Mekelle was fully under its control, vowing to drive out “enemies” from the federal government.
“The government of Tigray calls upon our people and army of Tigray to intensify their struggle until our enemies completely leave Tigray,” the statement said. “The government and army of Tigray will carry out all the tasks necessary to ensure the survival and security of our people,” the statement said.
Shortly after TDF forces advanced on Mekelle, the Ethiopian government declared a “unilateral ceasefire”, in a rare attempt at de-escalating the war. The ceasefire “will enable farmers to till their land, aid groups to operate without any military movement around and engage with remnants (of the TPLF) who seek peace”, Ethiopia’s statement said, adding that efforts to bring Tigray’s former leaders to justice continued.
Ethiopia said the ceasefire would last until September, the end of the crucial planting season in the region.
The government’s forces invaded Tigray in November, sparking global outrage and condemnation of Nobel peace prize winner and prime minister Abiy Ahmed. The government said it had acted after rebel attacks on military bases, and the TPLF, which formerly ruled Ethiopia for nearly three decades, was ousted within six weeks.
Close to a million civilians have been internally displaced and have fled to neighbouring Sudan, sparking a humanitarian crisis. The presence of Eritrean forces and local ethnic militia groups in the fighting have deepened fears that worsening ethnic and historic divisions will have a lasting impact on the region.
For months the TDF appeared to have been subdued as the guerilla-style conflict wore on, but in recent weeks they launched a series of counter offensives. A surge in fighting coincided with Ethiopia’s national elections earlier this month, which were not held in Tigray. Though the TDF did not hold any major cities and towns for months, its leaders repeatedly boasted that they were in the ascendancy and regrouping in remote rural areas.
Residents had recently reported rebels advancing as close as 55km near the city, with the rebels boasting of inflicting major losses on federal forces. Last week, residents reported that flights to Mekelle were restricted, and as fighting intensified, officials were said to be denying permits for aid operations in towns outside of the city.
While the TPLF vowed to fight on, global leaders moved to end the conflict, amid the government’s ceasefire declaration.
UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres said on Monday he had spoken with Abiy, winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, and was “hopeful that an effective cessation of hostilities will take place”.
Britain, the US and Ireland have called for an emergency UN security council public meeting, which could happen on Friday, diplomatic sources told AFP. The security council has failed to hold a public session on Tigray since the war erupted, with many African countries, China, Russia and other nations deeming the crisis an internal Ethiopian affair.
During the recent conflict, 64 people were killed and 180 injured in a government airstrike on a market in the city of Togoga, according to local health workers and residents.
Ethiopia said the airstrike targeted rebel fighters, but survivors and health workers said the attack was on a busy market and killed and injured dozens of people, including children.
Aid agencies have been heavily restricted by Ethiopia’s government from providing desperately needed aid. Around 350,000 people are on the brink of famine according to the UN. Abiy has denied that hunger exists in Tigray.
The conflict in Tigray has been marked by several atrocities, including multiple massacres and systematic sexual violence. Many have been linked to Ethiopian federal soldiers and their Eritrean allies.