© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Amhara Special Force members return to the mechanized military base of the 5th Division of Dansha after fighting the Tigray People & # 39; s Liberation Front (TPLF) in Danasha, Amhara region, near the Tigray border
ADDIS ABABA / NAIROBI (Reuters) – Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said Saturday that military operations in troubled Tigray region are complete and federal troops control the regional capital, a key development in a three-week-old war involving the Horn of Africa.
Abiy & # 39; s government has tried to quell a riot by a powerful ethnic faction that ruled the central government for decades before coming to power in 2018. Thousands of people are believed to have been killed and nearly 44,000 fled to Sudan in a conflict that has questioned whether Abiy can hold fragile ethnic groups together in Ethiopia, Africa's second most populous country.
"I am pleased to announce that we have completed and suspended military operations in the Tigray region," the Prime Minister said in a tweet. Less than an hour earlier, he said in a statement: "The federal government now has full control over the city of Mekelle."
However, the leader of the Tigray People & # 39; s Liberation Front (TPLF), whose forces fought against Ethiopian forces, said the group was not giving up.
"Your brutality can only add to our determination to fight these invaders to the last," TPLF chairman Debretsion Gebremichael told Reuters in a text message. When asked by Reuters if this meant his forces would keep fighting, he replied, “Sure. The point here is to defend our right to self-determination. "
There was no immediate response from the government.
In his statement, Abiy said the federal police would continue to search for "criminals" of the TPLF, detain them and bring them to justice. The Prime Minister has described the offensive as a law and order operation.
It wasn't clear if TPLF leaders had surrendered. Debretsion said in another text message that their forces were withdrawing from the Mekelle area.
Allegations from all sides are difficult to verify as telephone and internet connections to Tigray have been cut since the fighting began on November 4th and access has been tightly controlled.
The authorities had previously announced on Saturday that the government forces were in the final stages of an offensive in the region and were concerned with protecting the civilian population in Mekelle, a town of 500,000 people.
Abiy said the army had secured the release of thousands of troops from the Army's Northern Command in Tigray, which had been taken hostage by the TPLF.
Federal troops have also taken control of the airport, the regional administration office and other important facilities, Abiy said.
The government had given the TPLF an ultimatum, expired Wednesday, to lay down weapons or face an attack on the city.
It was not clear whether the federal forces had confiscated weapons stocks on Saturday. The government said in the first week of the conflict that a target of its air strikes was military equipment that was confiscated from Tigrayan forces.
Regional diplomats and experts have said that a swift military victory may not signal the end of the conflict.
Two diplomats told Reuters it was likely that Tigrayan forces would have withdrawn from Mekelle before the government's advance into the city, increasing the prospect of protracted guerrilla warfare.
The TPLF has a history of guerrilla resistance and used Tigray's highlands and external borders to their advantage through years of armed struggle against a Marxist government in the 1980s.
The Prime Minister has so far rejected mediation attempts. Abiy accuses Tigrayan leaders of starting the war by attacking federal troops at a base in Tigray. The TPLF says the attack was a preemptive strike.
Not a word about losses
Abiy did not mention in his statements whether there had been victims on the offensive to catch Mekelle.
Rights groups were concerned that an attack on the city could result in significant civilian casualties.
The Prime Minister's spokeswoman, Billene Seyoum, had said earlier on Saturday: "The security of the Ethiopians in the Mekelle and Tigray region remains a priority for the federal government."
TPLF boss Debretsion told Reuters in text messages on Saturday that Mekelle was under "heavy bombardment".
Billene said: "The Ethiopian National Defense Forces have no mission to bomb their own city and people. Mekelle remains one of the key cities of Ethiopia and efforts to bring the criminal clique to justice will not become a discriminatory 'bombing'. 39; entail as suggested by TPLF and their propagandists. "
Debretsion accused the military from neighboring Eritrea of crossing the border and searching refugee camps in Tigray to catch refugees who have fled Eritrea in the past.
The Eritrean government has not responded to calls from Reuters for more than two weeks.
United Nations Refugee Agency chief Filippo Grandi said Saturday he was deeply concerned about the 100,000 Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia and unconfirmed reports of violence against them.
The TPLF and Eritrea are archenemies: The TPLF was responsible in Addis Ababa when Ethiopia and Eritrea were at war from 1998 to 2000. But Eritrea and Abiy have warm relationships. The Ethiopian government has denied TPLF allegations that Eritrean troops are operating on Ethiopian soil.
Eritrea is one of the most repressive nations in the world and around 10% of the population has fled.
Tigrayans, who make up about 6% of the Ethiopian population of 115 million people, dominated the government until Abiy took power two years ago. He promised to unite Ethiopians and establish freedoms after years of state repression that filled prisons with tens of thousands of political prisoners.
His government also tried high-ranking Tigrayan officials for crimes such as corruption, torture and murder. The Tigrayan region viewed these processes as discrimination.