Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has announced the ending of military operations in the northern Tigray region after the army said it was in “full control” of the regional capital, Mekelle.
There was no immediate comment on Saturday from forces loyal to the heavily armed Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), who have been fighting federal troops for more than three weeks. Thousands of people are believed to have died and nearly one million forced from their homes, including some 43,000 refugees have fled to neighboring Sudan, during the conflict.
“The federal government is now fully in control of the city of Mekelle,” Abiy said in a statement posted on his Twitter page.
“I am pleased to share that we have completed and ceased the military operations in the Tigray region,” he said in a separate tweet. “Our focus now will be on rebuilding the region and providing humanitarian assistance while Federal Police apprehend the TPLF clique.”
It followed a statement from army chief General Birhanu Jula, who was quoted as saying by the Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation that the government forces “completely controlled Mekelle”, adding that 7,000 members of the army’s Northern Command who were held hostage by the TPLF had been freed.
Earlier in the day, TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael had said Mekelle, a city of 500,000 people, was under “heavy bombardment”. A diplomat in direct contact with residents also said federal forces had begun an offensive to capture Mekelle.
Claims from all sides are difficult to verify since phone and internet links to Tigray have been cut and access has been tightly controlled since fighting began on November 4.
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Al Jazeera’s Malcolm Webb, reporting from neighboring Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, said if Mekelle was indeed under the control of Ethiopia’s army “it would suggest that the large numbers of fighters and substantial military hardware that the TPLF is widely believed to control had actually already been tactically retreated into the nearby mountains.
He added: “It would appear that they’ve chosen not to use the resources that they have to fight to control the city. This would certainly be a relief for many people – rights groups and others have been warning about a potential disaster if there had been heavy fighting and shelling on the city.”
The government had given the TPLF an ultimatum that expired on Wednesday to surrender or face an assault on the city.
But an official with the TPLF, which has long experience fighting in the Tigray region’s rugged terrain, told Al Jazeera earlier this week that the fall of Mekelle would not spell the end of their fight.
“Our forces still control much of rural Tigray, and our governing structure remains intact in these areas,” said Fesseha Tessema. “There’s no military solution, only a negotiated political one.”
The fighting has threatened to cause a massive humanitarian crisis, as well as destabilize Ethiopia and the wider Horn of Africa region.
Abiy accused the TPLF of starting the war by attacking federal troops at a base in Tigray. The TPLF says the attack was a pre-emptive strike.
Launched as a fledgling guerilla group in the 1970s, the TPLF led a movement that came to power in 1991 after overthrowing the Communist government of Mengistu Haile Mariam. It established a multi-ethnic governing coalition that was dominated by ethnic Tigrayans for decades.
That changed in 2018 when Abiy took office after mass anti-government protests. Since then, TPLF leaders have complained that they have been unfairly targeted, marginalized, and blamed for the country’s ills.
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