Leader of Tigray rebels denies damaging airport at Axum, northwest of the main city, Mekelle, saying only obstacles were placed to block the Ethiopian army's advance.

A damaged tank stands abandoned on a road as a truck of the Amhara Special Forces passes by near Humera, in Ethiopia, on November 22, 2020.
A damaged tank stands abandoned on a road as a truck of the Amhara Special Forces passes by near Humera, in Ethiopia, on November 22, 2020. (AFP)

Forces of Ethiopia's Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) have reportedly destroyed an airport in the ancient town of Axum, after advancing federal troops gave them a 72-hour ultimatum to surrender.

State-affiliated broadcaster Fana said on Monday TPLF troops had destroyed the airport at Axum, which lies northwest of main Mekelle city and is a popular tourist draw and UNESCO World Heritage site.

An Ethiopian government spokesman said the federal forces are encircling the regional capital Mekelle at a range of about 50 kilometres.

But TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael denied that Mekelle was surrounded. He also denied claims that his forces destroyed Axum airport, saying obstacles had been put up to block advances by the Ethiopian military.

Also on Monday, Addis Ababa police arrested some 796 people suspected of plotting "terrorist attacks" in the capital for the TPLF, Fana reported.

Surrender ultimatum nears

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has told the TPLF, which had been ruling the mountainous northern zone of five million people, to lay down arms by Wednesday or face a final assault on Mekelle.

TPLF leader Gebremichael said that the threat was a cover for government forces to regroup after what he described as defeats on three fronts.

Claims by all sides are hard to verify because phone and internet communication has been down.

Axium's Christian lineage

Axum's history and ruins, including fourth-century obelisks when the Axumite Empire was at its pinnacle, gives Ethiopia its claim to be one of the world's oldest centres of Christianity.

Legend says it was once home to the Queen of Sheba and Ethiopians believe an Axum church houses the Ark of the Covenant.

Conflict spreads beyond Tigray 

Hundreds, possibly thousands, have been killed in the fighting and air strikes that erupted on November 4, sending about 40,000 refugees into neighbouring Sudan. 

The conflict has spread beyond Tigray, with the TPLF firing rockets into both neighbouring Amhara region and across the border to Eritrea.

In the Amhara region, next to Tigray, residents reported a rocket strike around dawn on Monday.
"So far, I didn’t hear of any casualties," said a hotel receptionist in Bahir Dar, the lakeside capital of Amhara.

"I guess now we are accustomed to it and there wasn’t much panic."

International appeals for mediation, from the United Nations and around Africa and Europe, have so far not gained traction.

The United Nations' humanitarian coordinator for Ethiopia, Catherine Sozi, urged safety guarantees for aid workers, Mekelle's more than half a million inhabitants, and their health, school and water systems.

READ M0RE: Ethiopia to Tigray forces: 'Surrender peacefully' within 72 hours

Why are Tigrayans angry with PM Abiy?

PM Abiy's government has repeatedly said it is only pursuing TPLF leaders and facilities to restore law and order after they rose up against federal troops.

It denies hitting civilians.

The TPLF says Abiy has "invaded" their region to dominate them and is inflicting "merciless" damage on Tigrayans.

"We are people of principle and are ready to die in defence of our right to administer our region," TPLF leader Debretsion added in a text message to Reuters.

Debretsion was a signals and intelligence officer for the TPLF during their war against the Communist Derg dictatorship in the 1980s and later earned a degree in electronic engineering from Addis Ababa University.

He rose to the rank of deputy prime minister in the Ethiopian government when it was dominated by the TPLF.

READ M0RE: Ethiopia rejects African mediation as troops close in on Tigray capital

The TPLF accuses accuse Abiy, a former military comrade and partner in government, of marginalising their ethnic group since becoming prime minister two years ago.

He has removed Tigrayan officials from influential roles in government and the military and detained some on rights abuse and corruption charges.

Abiy, whose parents are from the larger Oromo and Amhara groups, denies any ethnic undertones, saying he is legitimately pursuing criminals and preserving national unity.

READ MORE: What is behind the ethnic divide in Ethiopia?

UAE aid

At the weekend, the United Arab Emirates was the latest government to express concern, saying it was making contacts around Africa and the world to try to end the conflict.

The UAE has pledged billions in aid and investment to Ethiopia since Abiy took over and it played a quiet role in the 2018 Ethiopia-Eritrea peace pact.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies