By Giulia Paravicini and George Obulutsa
OLBIA, Italy (Reuters) – The armed forces in Ethiopia's northern Tigray region have released around 1,000 government soldiers captured during the recent fighting, the ruling party's chief said as both sides prepared for a showdown over disputed land in the western part of the region .
Debretsion Gebremichael, leader of the Tigray People & # 39; s Liberation Front (TPLF), told Reuters on a satellite phone late Friday that they had released 1,000 low-ranking soldiers.
"More than 5,000 (soldiers) are still with us and we will keep the senior officers who will be tried," he said.
He said the soldiers were driven to the southern border from Tigray to the Amhara region on Friday, but did not say who received them or how the release was negotiated.
Reuters was unable to independently verify his account.
A military spokesman said he was not immediately available for comment on Saturday, and the Amhara regional administration spokesman said he had no information about the release.
Officials in Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's office and a government task force on Tigray did not respond to calls asking for comments.
Fighting erupted in Tigray in November when the government accused the TPLF of attacking military bases across the region, which the party denied. Three weeks later, the government declared victory when it took control of the regional capital, Mekelle, but the TPLF continued to fight.
In a dramatic turn, the TPLF retook Mekelle and most of Tigray in late June after the government withdrew its soldiers and declared a unilateral ceasefire.
However, the TPLF promised to continue fighting until it regained control of the disputed area to the south and west of Tigray, which was confiscated from Amhara government allies during the fighting.
Abiy said this week that the military would fend off any TPLF threat and effectively abandon the self-proclaimed ceasefire. Amhara and three other regions said they are mobilizing forces to support the national army in the fight against the TPLF.
Thousands of people died in the fighting; around 2 million have been displaced and more than 5 million are dependent on emergency food aid.
On Saturday, the Ethiopian state broadcaster quoted Addis Ababa Police Commissioner Getu Argaw Debela as saying that they had arrested 323 people suspected of supporting the TPLF, possessing weapons or violating the constitution, among other things.
Debela said police also closed suspects' stores while they were investigating them.
This week, Reuters reported that police had arrested hundreds of Tigrayans in Addis Ababa since late June when government forces lost control of the capital of Tigray.
On Friday, the Ethiopian Foreign Ministry issued a statement accusing aid organizations of arming rebels.
"Some aid agencies have actively played a destructive role. We have also confirmed that they are using the aid as cover and arming the rebel groups to prolong the conflict," it said.
The groups were not identified in the statement and there was no immediate response from the agencies operating in Tigray. The United Nations humanitarian organization OCHA did not respond to a request for comment.
The United Nations has stated that much-needed assistance will be blocked at checkpoints while convoys travel through government-controlled territory. Ethiopian authorities say the aid needs to be reviewed.
(Giulia Paravicini reported from Olbia and George Obulutsa from Nairobi; additional reporting by Tiksa Negeri; writing by George Obulutsa; editing by Katharine Houreld, Frances Kerry and Daniel Wallis)