Witnesses say Tigrayan rebels entered Ethiopia’s key northern town of Shire, cementing further territorial gains in the northern region of Tigray
Tigrayan forces battling Ethiopia's government have plans to enter neighbouring Eritrea and Ethiopia's Amhara region to pursue "enemy" forces if it is required, a spokesman said.
"Our primary focus is to degrade enemy fighting capabilities ... So if going to Amhara is what it takes, we will do it, if going to Eritrea is what it takes, we'll do it," Getachew Reda, spokesman for the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), told Reuters by satellite phone on Tuesday afternoon.
Two eyewitnesses told Reuters that Tigrayan forces entered Ethiopia's key northern town of Shire on Tuesday, cementing further territorial gains in the northern region of Tigray as the Ethiopian military and its allies pull back.
"Everybody is welcoming them and celebrating. Now there are a lot (of Tigrayan forces) and most of them are in uniform," one resident told Reuters. Both eyewitnesses declined to be named for fear of retaliation.
The prime minister's spokeswoman, the Ethiopian military spokesman and the head of a government task force on Tigray did not return messages seeking comment.
Dissident leaders in Ethiopia's war-hit Tigray vowed to drive out "enemies" from the region, suggesting fighting will continue despite a federal government ceasefire declaration.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent troops into Tigray last November to oust the northern region's former ruling party, TPLF.
He said the move came in response to TPLF attacks on federal army camps, and vowed that victory would be swift.
But almost eight months on, the operation suffered a serious blow when rebels known as the Tigray Defence Forces (TDF) entered the regional capital Mekele on Monday, prompting celebrations in the streets as federal soldiers and members of an Abiy-appointed interim regional government fled.
Abiy's government then announced Monday night it was declaring a "unilateral ceasefire."
"An unconditional, unilateral ceasefire has been declared starting from today, June 28," read a statement published Monday night by state media.
The ceasefire will last until the end of the current "farming season" and is intended to facilitate agricultural production and aid distribution while allowing rebel fighters "to return to a peaceful road", it said.
Control of Mekele
A statement overnight from Tigray's pre-war government hailed the TDF advances and said Mekele was fully under its control.
"We are 100 percent in control of Mekele," Reda told Reuters.
There had been some fighting on the outskirts of the city, but that was now finished, he said.
“Our forces are still in hot pursuit to south, east, to continue until every square inch of territory is cleared from the enemy.”
The dramatic reversal for Abiy's forces signalled a turning point in the nearly eight-month-old conflict in Tigray, which the United Nations says has pushed 350,000 people to the brink of famine.
I have just spoken with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and I am hopeful that an effective cessation of hostilities will take place in Tigray.— António Guterres (@antonioguterres) June 28, 2021
It is essential that civilians are protected, humanitarian aid reaches the people in need and a political solution is found.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said Monday he had spoken with Abiy, winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, and was "hopeful that an effective cessation of hostilities will take place".
He called recent events in Tigray "extremely worrisome" saying they "demonstrate, once again, that there is no military solution to the crisis".
The British embassy in Ethiopia said the ceasefire was an "important development" and called on all parties to respect it.
Britain, the United States and Ireland have called for an emergency UN Security Council public meeting, which could happen on Friday, diplomatic sources said.
The UNSC has failed to hold a public session on Tigray since the war began last November, with many African countries, China, Russia and other nations deeming the crisis an internal Ethiopian affair.
The war in Tigray began last November, when Abiy sent troops in to oust the dissident regional leadership, saying it was in response to attacks by TPLF, on federal army camps.
Abiy promised a swift victory, and federal troops took control of Mekele in late November.
But intense fighting has persisted throughout the region amid mounting reports of massacres and widespread sexual violence.
The TDF launched a major offensive last week coinciding with Ethiopia's highly anticipated national elections.
An interim government official told Monday that the TDF fighters had entered Mekele.
The official said Tigray's Abiy-appointed interim government had earlier opted to leave their posts in Mekele as TDF fighters closed in "on every side".
"Everybody has left. The last ones left in the afternoon... The region doesn't have a government," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity for safety reasons.
A humanitarian official confirmed the interim government's departure.
Abiy's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday evening.
The state-affiliated Fana Broadcasting Corporate earlier reported that the head of Tigray's interim administration had asked the federal government to declare a ceasefire.
This act violates UN privileges and immunities and the rules of International Humanitarian Law regarding respect for humanitarian relief objects. I condemn this action in the strongest terms.— Henrietta H. Fore (@unicefchief) June 28, 2021
Banks raided, phones seized, satellite equipment dismantled
Earlier Monday, witnesses reported that federal soldiers and police were fleeing Mekele, with some raiding banks and commandeering vehicles belonging to private citizens.
"The federal police and Ethiopian forces are fleeing the city in cars they took from individuals. They seem to be going east," one witness said.
A UN official said that soldiers had dismantled the satellite communication equipment of multiple UN agencies in Mekele in an apparent attempt to cut communications out of the city.
"Members of the Ethiopian National Defense Forces entered our office in Mekele, Tigray, Ethiopia today and dismantled our VSAT equipment," the United Nations Children's Fund said in a statement, referring to satellite machinery.
"UNICEF's priority in Tigray, and across Ethiopia, is to help the most vulnerable children, including the 140,000 children already facing famine-like conditions. We are not, and should never be, a target," the statement added.
"This act violates UN privileges and immunities and the rules of international humanitarian law regarding respect for humanitarian relief objects," the executive director of the UN children's agency, Henrietta Fore, said on Twitter.
"I condemn this action in the strongest terms."
Multiple witnesses described celebratory gunfire in Mekele on Monday night as residents took to the streets hailing the TDF's arrival.
"Everybody is out of their house. Everybody is excited and they have music on the streets," one Mekele resident said.
"Everybody has their flags out and music is playing. Everybody, I don't know how they got it, but everybody has fireworks."