Tigray People's Liberation Front chief Debretsion says he is close to Mekelle city "fighting the invaders" as PM Abiy lauds federal troops for defeating TPLF in just "three weeks."

Ethiopian refugees wait in lines for a meal at Um Rakuba refugee camp on Sudan-Ethiopia border, on November 28, 2020.
Ethiopian refugees wait in lines for a meal at Um Rakuba refugee camp on Sudan-Ethiopia border, on November 28, 2020. (Reuters)

The leader of Ethiopia's rebellious northern forces has said his fighters were still fighting close to the regional capital of Mekelle after it was captured by federal troops even as Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed praised his soldiers for victory over Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF).

"I'm close to Mekelle in Tigray fighting the invaders," Debretsion Gebremichael, who heads TPLF, told Reuters news agency in a text message on Monday.

Gebremichael, a 57-year-old former radio operator, denied reports that he had fled to South Sudan and said his forces had captured some soldiers from neighbouring Eritrea around Wukro, about 50 km north of Mekelle.

Though the highland city of 500,000 people fell to federal troops with little resistance last week, the TPLF later said it had shot down a plane and retaken one town.

READ MORE: Tigray forces claim downing Ethiopian military plane, retaking Axum town

PM Abiy hails soldiers for victory 

Also on Monday, PM Abiy hailed his soldiers for dominating TPLF, saying it took his soldiers only three weeks to finish the job. 

"Our constitution was attacked but it didn't take us three years, it took us three weeks," Abiy told parliament, comparing his offensive with the American Civil War of the 1860s.

"No other country can ensure such a performance. Our army is disciplined and victorious," he added, saying federal troops had not killed any civilians nor damaged Mekelle after launching a November 4 offensive in response to a TPLF attack on an army base.

"We are not the (TPLF) junta ... We conduct ourselves responsibly."

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

Diplomats say death toll in thousands 

The nearly month-long war has killed hundreds and probably thousands, sent refugees into Sudan, enmeshed Eritrea, affected a peacekeeping mission in Somalia, and deepened divisions between Ethiopia's myriad ethnic groups.

Abiy's troops took Tigray's capital Mekelle at the weekend and declared defeat for TPLF, a guerrilla movement-turned-political party that dominated national government for nearly three decades until 2018.

When he took office in 2018, Abiy pledged to unite Ethiopia's 115 million people, but there have been repeated bouts of ethnic bloodshed and hundreds of thousands have had to flee their homes.

Both sides have spoken of hundreds of dead in the Tigray war, and diplomats believe the toll is in the thousands.

Claims from all sides are difficult to verify since phone and internet links to Tigray have largely been down and access has been tightly controlled since the war began.

READ MORE: UN – Military’s victory in Tigray does not signify end of Ethiopia conflict

'Criminal clique'

Abiy's spokeswoman Billene Seyoum dismissed the TPLF's comments about resisting, saying: "Tracking and responding to the many delusions of a disintegrating criminal clique that has become irrelevant is not our focus."

But Debretsion's defiance raises the spectre of a drawn-out guerrilla war. 

The battle-hardened TPLF helped to topple Ethiopia's Marxist dictatorship in 1991 and knows how to exploit its mountainous terrain and borders with Sudan and Eritrea.

"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" said International Crisis Group analyst Will Davison.

Tigray loyalty in question 

Abiy won a Nobel Peace Prize last year for making peace with Eritrea, whose government also regards the TPLF as an enemy.

The US State Department reported six explosions in Asmara on Saturday night, but without specifying the cause. Diplomats told Reuters they had been either rockets or missiles.

Ethiopia is a major contributor to an African Union peacekeeping force fighting Al Qaeda-linked militants in Somalia, but has disarmed several hundred soldiers of Tigrayan ethnicity, questioning their loyalty.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies