ADDIS ABABA: The Ethiopia army said on Saturday that it was in charge of the capital of the Tigray region and was searching for its dissident leaders.
The announcement came after heavy shelling was recorded in Mekele, a city of half a million residents, as it was set up for a military offensive against Tigray’s ruling party.
“The Ethiopian Defense Force has completely controlled Mekele,” said Army Chief General Berhanu Jula, who said that the Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation (EBC) had released 7,000 members of the Northern Army Command.
The local government said earlier that heavy shelling had rattled downtown Mekele, a statement reported by two humanitarian officials with workers in the area.
We were able to reach the city of Mekele without innocent people being targets,” Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said to the EBC shortly before the army chief’s remarks.
Abiy, recipient of last year’s Nobel Peace Prize, declared on 4 November that he had directed military operations against Tigray’s ruling Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
More than three weeks of fierce battles in the Tigray war have left thousands of civilians dead. Tens of thousands more have poured over the border to Sudan, and the exodus within Tigray is believed to be widespread. Abiy had declared that he had directed a “final” offensive against the Tigray army.
The TPLF was contacted on Saturday after an army announcement, but could not be reached immediately.
Ethiopia has declined to recruit Eritrean military assistance for Tigray, but has recognised the use of the territories of Eritrea.
Communications blackouts in Tigray have made it difficult to verify the way the war is going.
The spokesman for the crisis committee set up in response to the hostilities in Tigray did not respond to a request for comments on the reported bombing of Mekele, which had already been hit by air strikes. But Addis Ababa said that “aerial engagement was accurate, targeting only TPLF military depots, weapons and arsenals,” avoiding “civilian facilities.”
The government of Tigray accused Abiy of joining forces with Isaias Afwerki, president of neighbouring Eritrea, for the attack on Mekele.
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“The regional state of Tigray would like it to be known to friends and enemies alike that it will respond proportionately to the massacres and property damage done by these fascists,” he said.
Ethiopia has refused to employ Eritrean military support for Tigray, but has acknowledged the use of the land of Eritrea.
The United Nations has spent weeks campaigning – so far unsuccessfully – for complete access to Tigray. Abiy’s office said it would open a “humanitarian access route” this week.