The United Nations human rights office voiced alarm on Tuesday at reports of a heavy build-up of tanks and artillery around the Tigrayan regional capital of Mekelle after the Ethiopian government’s ultimatum to surrender before a threatened attack.
Some 40,000 Ethiopian refugees have fled to eastern Sudan the since crisis began on Nov. 4, including more than 5,000 fleeing fighting in Tigray at the weekend, the UN refugee agency said. There may be ‘severe, massive’ internal displacement in Tigray, amid a communications blackout, a UN aid spokesman told a Geneva briefing.
Tigrayan forces said on Tuesday they had destroyed an Ethiopian army division in battles to control the northern region where a three-week-old war has killed hundreds and spread global alarm.
The federal government denied that and said many Tigrayan soldiers were surrendering in line with a 72-hour ultimatum before a threatened attack on the regional capital Mekelle.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s troops launched an offensive against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) local government on Nov. 4 and say they are closing in on Mekelle in a final push to win the conflict.
But the battle-hardened TPLF say their troops are keeping the federal army at bay and scoring some big victories.
Their spokesman Getachew Reda told Tigray TV a prestigious army unit - which he termed the 21st mechanized division - had been “completely destroyed” in an assault at Raya-Wahirat led by a former commander of that unit now fighting for the TPLF.
Billene Seyoum, the prime minister’s spokeswoman, told Reuters that was not true.
Reuters reported it has been unable to verify statements made by either side since phone and internet connections to Tigray are down and access to the area is strictly controlled.
Hundreds have died, tens of thousands of refugees have fled to Sudan and there is widespread destruction and uprooting of people from homes, security and aid sources say.
The conflict has spread to Eritrea, where the TPLF has fired rockets, and also affected Somalia where Ethiopia has disarmed several hundred Tigrayans in a peacekeeping force fighting al Qaeda-linked militants.