Debretsion Gebremichael, leader of Tigray People's Liberation Front, says his fighters have captured pilot of downed plane and retaken Axum town from federal troops. Ethiopian government hasn't commented yet.

A member of the Amhara Special Forces looks on as he holds his rifle at the 5th Battalion of the Northern Command of the Ethiopian Army in Dansha, Ethiopia, on November 25, 2020.
A member of the Amhara Special Forces looks on as he holds his rifle at the 5th Battalion of the Northern Command of the Ethiopian Army in Dansha, Ethiopia, on November 25, 2020. (AFP)

Rebellious forces in Ethiopia's Tigray region have shot down a military plane, captured its pilot, and claimed to have retaken the town of Axum from federal troops, a day after the government announced its military operation in the region was over.

Debretsion Gebremichael, leader of Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), a powerful ethnically-based party, told Reuters in a text message on Sunday that the captured pilot of the downed plane "was on a mission to bomb."

Gebremichael also claimed his forces retook the town of Axum from federal troops. 

Meanwhile, Ethiopian state TV (ETV) said that 70 graves, some individual and some mass, were found in the town of Humera in the restive Tigray region.

An ETV news reader announced the news as footage broadcast showed officials in military uniforms walking through a field in what the broadcaster said was the town of Humera. 

The news reader did not say who might have killed the people buried in the graves.

There was no immediate comment from the Ethiopian government or military. 

Claims from all sides have been difficult to verify as phone and internet links to Tigray have been down and access has been tightly controlled since fighting erupted on November 4 between Ethiopian troops and the Tigrayan forces.

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

Mekelle hospitals low on supplies 

Also on Sunday, the Ethiopian government launched a manhunt for leaders of TPLF after announcing federal troops had taken over the regional capital Mekelle and military operations were complete.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said hospitals in Mekelle are running low on supplies such as gloves to care for the wounded, and one hospital is lacking body bags for the dead. 

An ICRC statement did not give any numbers for the dead and wounded, but said the situation was "quiet" on Sunday.

The government has not said if there were casualties in its offensive to take the city.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has been trying to quell a rebellion by TPLF, a party that dominated the central government for nearly three decades before Abiy came to power in 2018.

He said on Saturday evening federal troops had taken control of Mekelle within hours of launching an offensive there, allaying fears of protracted fighting in the city of 500,000 people.

But TPLF leader Gebremichael later told Reuters in a series of text messages that his forces were withdrawing from around the city but would fight on, raising the spectre of a drawn-out guerrilla war.

Thousands of people are believed to have been killed and nearly 44,000 have fled to neighbouring Sudan since fighting began on November 4.

READ MORE: UN urges civilian protection as Ethiopia warns of ‘no mercy’ in assault

Test for Abiy

The conflict has been another test for Abiy, who is trying to hold together a patchwork of ethnic groups that make up Ethiopia's 115 million people. 

The flow of refugees and attacks by the TPLF on neighbouring Eritrea have also threatened to destabilise the wider Horn of Africa region.

The prime minister, who refers to the three-week-old conflict as an internal law and order matter, has rebuffed international offers of mediation. 

He said federal police would try to arrest TPLF "criminals" and bring them to court.

Late on Saturday, police issued arrest warrants for 17 more military officers charged with crimes including treason and embezzlement of public properties, state-affiliated Fana TV reported. 

Arrest warrants have already been issued for 117 senior officers with alleged ties to the TPLF since the conflict began.

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

Military says 'stablisation' begins

Lieutenant General Bacha Debele told Fana TV on Sunday that the military was engaged in "stabilisation activities", including assisting people displaced by the fighting to return to their villages.

It was not clear if any TPLF leaders had surrendered or been apprehended since Saturday. Their whereabouts and plans were also unknown.

Asked by Reuters on Saturday if the TPLF would continue fighting, Debretsion replied in a text message: "Certainly. This is about defending our right to self-determination."

Ethiopian state TV broadcast footage on Sunday of federal troops in a location it did not specify clapping and cheering. 

Residents in five towns in the Amhara region, which has a long-running border dispute with Tigray, took to the streets to show support for the military, state-run Amhara Mass Media Agency reported.

Guerrilla resistance looms

Regional diplomats and experts have said a rapid military victory in Mekelle might not signal the end of the conflict.

“Tigray’s leadership has vowed to fight on and, although it’s not clear how depleted Tigrayan security forces are by the conflict, armed resistance to the federal rule may well be backed by much of the regional government and party apparatus, including local militia, as well as by other Tigrayan nationalist elements," Will Davison, a senior analyst on Ethiopia at the International Crisis Group think tank, told Reuters on Sunday.

The TPLF has a history of guerrilla resistance. 

Tigray's mountainous terrain and borders with Sudan and Eritrea helped the group during its long struggle against Marxist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam, whom it eventually toppled in 1991.

The TPLF and Eritrean forces fought together against Mengistu and Eritrea secured its independence with his departure but relations soured soon after. The two nations went to war over a border dispute in 1998-2000.

Abiy won a Nobel Peace Prize last year for making peace with Eritrea, but the TPLF continues to regard the country as a mortal enemy.

The head of the United Nations refugee agency said on Sunday that he hoped the government's promise to open humanitarian access to Tigray would happen as soon as possible.

Explosions in Eritrea

Six explosions were reported in the Eritrean capital Asmara on Saturday night, the US State Department said in a statement, although it was not immediately clear if they were related to the Tigray conflict. 

The statement did not mention the cause or location of the explosions.

The TPLF has accused Eritrea of sending troops into Tigray in support of the Ethiopian government and fired rockets at its capital Asmara on November 14.

Government officials in Asmara and Addis Ababa did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the latest explosions. Tigrayan forces also could not be reached.

Abiy's government launched the offensive in Tigray after what it described as an attack by local forces on federal troops stationed there.

The TPLF accuses Abiy of wanting to centralise control at the expense of Ethiopia's 10 regions, which exercise wide-ranging powers over matters like taxation and security. 

Abiy denies this.

Tensions escalated after Tigray held a regional election in September in defiance of the federal government, which had postponed voting nationwide in August because of the Covid-19 pandemic, and which called the Tigray vote illegal.

READ MORE: UNICEF: Ethiopia unrest puts 2.3M children in urgent need of assistance

Source: TRTWorld and agencies