Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed late on Sunday gave the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) 72 hours to surrender – an ultimatum rejected by the leader of the dissident northern region, whose forces have been fighting Ethiopian troops for three weeks.

FILE PHOTO: Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed speaks during a media conference at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, on October 29, 2018.
FILE PHOTO: Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed speaks during a media conference at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, on October 29, 2018. (Reuters Archive)

Ethiopia's prime minister has said that the army has been ordered to move on the embattled Tigray capital after his 72-hour ultimatum for Tigray leaders to surrender ended, and he warns residents to "stay indoors."

The statement by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's office means tanks and other weaponry can now close in on the city of some half-million people. His government has warned of “no mercy” if residents don't move away from the Tigray leaders in time.

The new statement asserts that thousands of Tigray militia and special forces surrendered during the 72-hour period. “We will take utmost care to protect civilians,” it says.

Communications remain severed to Tigray, making it difficult to verify claims.

READ MORE: Ethiopian forces surround Tigray's capital Mekelle as ultimatum expires

'Third and final phase'

"The Ethiopian National Defence Forces have now been directed to conclude the third and final phase of our rule of law operations," Abiy said in a statement on Twitter.

"In this final phase, great care will be given to protect innocent civilians from harm. All efforts will be made to ensure that the city of Mekele, which was built through the hard work of our people, will not be severely damaged."

Abiy called on Mekele's half a million inhabitants to "stay at home and stay away from military targets, and take all necessary precautions", and urged them to hand over TPLF forces in their midst.

"We would like to assure you that our National Defence Forces have carefully devised a strategy to bring the TPLF criminal clique to justice, without harming innocent civilians, heritage sites, places of worship, development institutions and property," he said.

READ MORE: Calls to end Ethiopia conflict grow as decisive battle looms

'Very critical' shortages 

The United Nations says shortages have become “very critical” in Ethiopia’s embattled Tigray region as its population of 6 million remains sealed off and its capital is under threat of attack by Ethiopian forces seeking to arrest the regional leaders.

Fuel and cash are running out, more than 1 million people are now estimated to be displaced and food for nearly 100,000 refugees from Eritrea will be gone in a week, according to a new report released overnight. And more than 600,000 people who rely on monthly food rations haven’t received them this month.

Travel blockages are so dire that even within the Tigray capital, Mekele, the UN World Food Program cannot obtain access to transport food from its warehouses there.

Communications and travel links remain severed with the Tigray region since the deadly conflict broke out on Nov. 4, and now Human Rights Watch is warning that “actions that deliberately impede relief supplies” violate international humanitarian law.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's 72-hour ultimatum for the Tigray People's Liberation Front leaders to surrender ended Wednesday night. His government has said Mekele is surrounded.

The UN has reported people fleeing the city. Abiy's government had warned them of “no mercy” if residents didn't move away from the TPLF leaders who are accused of hiding among the population.

But with communications cut, it's not clear how many people in Mekele received the warnings. The alarmed international community is calling for immediate de-escalation, dialogue and humanitarian access.

Abiy on Wednesday, however, rejected international “interference.”

READ MORE: UN Security Council set for first meeting on Ethiopia’s Tigray conflict

Source: TRTWorld and agencies