Ethiopia accuses Tigray's rebel forces of destroying bridges connecting the regional capital Mekele with the rest of the country.

A still image taken from a video shows Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed addressing the nation in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, November 4, 2020.
A still image taken from a video shows Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed addressing the nation in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, November 4, 2020. (Ethiopia Broadcasting Coporation/Handout/Reuters TV / Reuters)

Ethiopia’s prime minister declared that “the final and crucial” military operation will launch in the coming days against the  Tigray region.

The announcement on Tuesday comes after the United Nations warned of a “full-scale humanitarian crisis” with refugees fleeing and people in Tigray starting to go hungry.

In a warning to Americans still in the Tigray region, the US Embassy in Ethiopia said those who can’t leave safely “are advised to shelter in place.” More than 1,000 citizens of various foreign countries are estimated to be trapped.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said a three-day deadline given to the Tigray region’s leaders and special forces “has expired today.”

Now, “we are marching to Mekele to capture those criminal elements,” Ethiopia’s minister in charge of democratisation, Zadig Abraha, said in a statement. “This will be a very brief operation.” Mekele, he said, will be the final stage.

The Ethiopian government accused Tigray's rebel forces of destroying bridges connecting the regional capital Mekele with the rest of the country.

"Anxious about the advance [of central government forces], the junta has destroyed four bridges that lead to Mekelle," said a statement issued by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's task force on the Tigray conflict.

Abiy, Africa's youngest leader and the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner, launched air strikes and a ground offensive on Nov. 4 after accusing ex-comrades and the local ruling party, the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), of armed revolt.

Rocket fire

The rocket fire has escalated a conflict which has already killed hundreds – one diplomatic source said thousands – and sent about 30,000 refugees into Sudan.

Abiy continues to reject international pleas for dialogue and de-escalation in the two-week conflict in the Horn of Africa that has spilled into neighbouring Eritrea. 

Tigrayan leaders say Abiy, 44, who comes from Ethiopia's largest ethnic group the Oromo, has persecuted and purged them from government and security posts since taking office in 2018.

Tigrayan forces have fired rockets into the neighbouring nation of Eritrea, accusing Eritrean forces of helping the Ethiopian government side, an allegation denied by Asmara.

"How could they kill their own brothers and sisters? This is not our custom," Addis Ababa resident Fitawrari Million said of the Tigrayan leaders during a rally to honour federal soldiers.

Tigray TV showed what appeared to be a bombed-out residential area, with damaged roofs and craters in the ground.

It said Tigrayan forces had also destroyed the key road between Shire and Axum, adding: "The TPLF junta will soon be held accountable for destroying this infrastructure and for crimes it has committed so far."

There was no immediate TPLF comment on the accusations.

“I heard a sound of some explosions. Boom, boom, boom, as I entered the house,” the station quoted a resident as saying. “When I got out later, I saw all this destruction. Two people have been injured. One of the injured is the landlord, and the other is a tenant just like us.”

READ MORE: Reports of hundreds dead in Ethiopia's bombardment of Tigray region

Humanitarian crisis

The United Nations said a "full-scale humanitarian crisis" was unfolding. With communications largely down and media barred, Reuters could not independently verify assertions by either side nor the situation on the ground.

Some 4,000 refugees keep arriving every day, a “very rapid” rate, UN refugee agency spokesman Babar Baloch told reporters in Geneva. “It’s a huge number in a matter of days ... It overwhelms the whole system,” he said, adding that the remote part of Sudan hasn’t seen such an influx in two decades.

Inside the Tigray region, cut off from the world with roads and airports closed, food and fuel and medical supplies are running desperately short.

READ MORE: UN: 'full-scale humanitarian crisis' unfolding in Ethiopia

"People are coming out of Ethiopia really scared, afraid, with stories saying they have been fleeing heavy fighting and there's no sign of the fighting stopping," said Babar Baloch, spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

With hundreds of thousands of Tigrayans dependent on food aid even before the conflict, suffering is worsening as hundreds of humanitarian workers are pulling out for their own safety.

Mark Lowcock, UN Undersecretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, said the United Nations was pressing Abiy's government to assure immediate and safe access to displaced people. "Humanitarian workers must be able to deliver assistance without fear of attack," he said.

Cut off

Communications with the Tigray region remain almost completely cut off, making it difficult to verify either side’s claims.

When asked when communications might resume, the minister, Zadig, asserted, “It’s not up to us. The TPLF destroyed telecom infrastructure in Tigray. ...By keeping people incommunicado, they’re trying to keep the Tigray people hostage with propaganda.”

He also denied the TPLF assertion that Eritrean forces had joined the conflict at the federal government’s request, saying that “there is no foreign government, no foreign army operating inside Ethiopia.” And no foreign government is giving military support from outside, either, he said.

Hungry, exhausted and scared, refugees from the Tigray region continued to flow into Sudan with terrifying accounts of war.

“These people are coming with knives and sticks, wanting to attack citizens. And behind them is the Ethiopian army with tanks. The knives and the sticks aren’t the problem, it’s the tanks,” said one refugee, Thimon Abrah. “They struck and burned the entire place.”

“When a man, or even a child is slaughtered, this is revenge,” said another, Tedey Benjamin. “This is a tribal war.”

Ethiopia’s prime minister on Monday night said his government is ready to “receive and reintegrate” the refugees and that federal forces would protect them.

But many refugees say those same forces sent them fleeing.

READ MORE: Ethiopia's Tigray region fires missiles into neighbouring Eritrea

Source: TRTWorld and agencies