Ethiopian PM Abiy Ahmed is being pressed behind the scenes to allow mediation on Tigray conflict that has spilled into neighbouring Eritrea and rocked wider Horn of Africa, diplomats say.
African leaders have attempted to kickstart some kind of mediation in Ethiopia's escalating internal conflict, two days after rocket strikes on Eritrea's capital highlighted risks that fighting could spread.
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni held talks with Ethiopia's deputy prime minister Demeke Mekonnen on Monday, while former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo headed to Addis Ababa to make his bid for dialogue.
"A war in Ethiopia would give the entire continent a bad image," Museveni wrote on Twitter after meeting Demeke in the northern town of Gulu.
"There should be negotiations and the conflict stopped, lest it leads to unnecessary loss of lives and cripples the economy."
Kenya and Djibouti also urged a peaceful resolution and the opening of humanitarian corridors, while Nigeria's former president Olusegun Obasanjo went to Ethiopia.
The diplomatic push came as Ethiopia air force bombed sites in and around the Tigrayan capital Mekelle, according to diplomatic and military sources.
'Give us time'
Ethiopia sought to divert international pressure for mediation.
"We are saying 'Give us time'. It's not going to take until eternity ... it will be a short-lived operation," Redwan Hussein, spokesman for the government's Tigray crisis task force, told reporters.
"We have never asked Uganda or any other country to mediate," Redwan added after Uganda appealed for negotiations.
Ethiopia's air force dropped bombs in and around Mekelle, four diplomatic and military sources told Reuters news agency.
The sources had no word on casualties or damage. There was no immediate information from the Ethiopian government, but Tigrayan local authorities and TV said the bombing happened mid-morning.
Casualties, refugee numbers surge
Hundreds of people are reported to have been killed so far in the conflict in Africa's second-most populous country, some in a gruesome massacre documented last week by Amnesty International.
More than 25,000 Ethiopians have fled into Sudan, Sudanese officials say.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced on November 4 he had ordered military operations in Tigray in a dramatic escalation of a long-running feud with the region's ruling party, the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF).
The Nobel Committee that awarded Abiy the 2019 Peace Prize said on Monday it was "deeply concerned" about fighting in the country and appealed for de-escalation.
READ MORE: Gunmen kill dozens in Ethiopia bus attack
Africa's problem is that we never discuss ideology, focusing so much on diplomacy. I totally disagree with politics that focus on ethnic federalism. We must emphasise the issue of oneness and common interests because it is the only way we can prosper. pic.twitter.com/TDLAGyxgbK— Yoweri K Museveni (@KagutaMuseveni) November 16, 2020
Nigeria envoy visits Addis Ababa
Nigeria's Obasanjo left for Addis Ababa to mediate in the crisis, his spokesman said.
"He is going there for mediation," said Kehinde Akinyemi
Both Abiy's office and the African Union said they did not have information about Obasanjo's visit.
Abiy's office also denied any talks were taking place in Uganda.
"The claims by various news outlets that Ethiopian officials are expected to take part in mediation talks with TPLF in Uganda is inaccurate and not substantiated," a government statement said.
TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael said he was "not aware" of Museveni's initiative.
Government wants TPLF to disarm before talks
Abiy's government has said the TPLF needs to be disarmed before negotiations can begin, as world leaders have called for an immediate end to hostilities.
On Monday the House of Federation, the upper house of parliament, said in a statement that calls for talks were misguided because the government and the TPLF are "by no means on equal legal and moral footing".
"The fact of the matter is that it is the TPLF that has violated the constitution and endangered the constitutional order. The federal government is merely working towards restoring it," the statement said.
Ethiopian military officials have vowed to keep military operations contained in Tigray, and Abiy has repeatedly vowed to deliver a quick, decisive victory.
Last week Abiy said federal forces had "liberated" the western zone of the Tigray region, which is made up of six zones plus the capital, Mekele, and surrounding areas.
On Sunday state media reported that federal forces had seized Alamata, a town 180 kilometres south of Tigray.
"As the TPLF militia were defeated in Alamata, they fled taking along around 10,000 prisoners," a government statement said.
A communications blackout in Tigray has made claims of advances difficult to verify.
Fears of wider conflict
In recent days the TPLF has extended the conflict beyond Tigray, launching rockets on airports in Ethiopia's Amhara region, which borders Tigray to the south, and in the capital of Eritrea, Ethiopia's neighbour to the north.
Debretsion has said the strikes are "legitimate" because federal forces are using the airports as part of their military operations in Tigray.
The strikes on the Eritrean capital Asmara in particular have reinforced fears that Ethiopia's conflict could draw in the wider Horn of Africa region.
The TPLF has accused Abiy's government of enlisting military support from Eritrea, something Ethiopia denies.
Debretsion said on Sunday that TPLF forces had been fighting "16 divisions" of Eritrean forces in recent days "on several fronts".
On Sunday night Tibor Nagy, the US State Department's top diplomat for Africa, said Washington "strongly condemns the TPLF's unjustifiable attacks against Eritrea on November 14 and its efforts to internationalise the conflict in Tigray".
"We continue to urge immediate action to protect civilians, de-escalate tensions, and restore peace," Nagy said in a Twitter post.