UN has called for humanitarian corridors for civilians caught in fighting, with Ethiopia’s government warning Mekelle residents “anything can happen” after giving a deadline for a military assault on the city.
The UN Security Council will be holding its first meeting on the conflict in Ethiopia's Tigray region.
The virtual meeting will not be open to the public and it was not yet clear if a statement would be issued afterward, diplomatic sources said on Monday.
Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning prime minister, has ordered the leaders of the northern region of Tigray to surrender ahead of a threatened all-out assault on its capital, Mekelle.
Abiy launched the military campaign against the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) on November 4, accusing it of attacking two federal military camps in the region, and of seeking to destabilise his government.
Hundreds of people are reported to have been killed, but a communications blackout has made claims from both sides difficult to verify.
UN Chief Antonio Guterres last week called for the opening of humanitarian corridors to assist civilians caught in the fighting, noting that authorities had so far rejected attempts at mediation.
"We are very worried about the situation in Ethiopia," the secretary general told reporters in New York, warning of a "dramatic humanitarian impact" including in neighbouring Sudan.
"We have been asking for the full respect of international humanitarian law and also for the opening of humanitarian corridors and the truces that might be necessary for humanitarian aid to be delivered," he said.
'Anything can happen'
Ethiopia’s government is again warning Mekelle residents as the clock ticks on a 72-hour ultimatum before a military assault, saying “anything can happen.”
Senior official Redwan Hussein told reporters on Monday that the Tigray regional leaders are “hiding out in a densely populated city; the slightest strike would end up losing lives.”
Human rights groups and others were alarmed over the weekend when Ethiopia’s military warned civilians in Mekelle, that there would be “no mercy” if they don’t “save themselves” before the offensive to flush out defiant regional leaders.
Amnesty International warns that deliberately attacking civilians and civilian objects “is prohibited under international humanitarian law and constitutes war crimes.”
Abiy issued a 72-hour ultimatum Sunday for TPLF leaders to surrender.
Redwan said that Mekelle, a city of around 500,000 people, is now encircled at a distance of about 50 kilometres, and with rougher terrain left behind “what remains is the plain land, easier for tanks”.
He added, “by providing a brute fact, it is letting people to understand the reality and make the right choice.”
Failed mediation efforts as civilians pay the price
Ethiopia's government again rejected international pleas for dialogue with the TPLF leaders, regarding them as criminals on the run.
The heavily-armed TPLF dominated Ethiopia's ruling coalition for more than a quarter century before Abiy came to power and introduced sweeping political reforms and sidelined TPLF officials.
Now, each government sees the other as illegal, with the TPLF objecting to the delay of national elections because of the Covid-19 pandemic and Abiy's government infuriated by the Tigray region defiantly holding its own vote in September.
Civilians are caught in the middle of what some experts have described as a conflict akin to an inter-state war. The TPLF alone has been estimated to have a quarter-million fighters.
“I can tell you that we remain extremely concerned about the safety of civilians in the Tigray region, especially the more than half a million people – including more than 200 aid workers – who remain in Mekelle following information that fighting might move into the city in the coming hours,” UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters.
More than two weeks into its offensive, the government says Tigrayan forces are bulldozing roads and destroyed bridges to hold up the advance on Mekelle.
The Tigrayans have promised "hell" for their advancing enemies. They have denied destroying bridges but were not reachable for comment about ploughing up roads.
Hundreds, possibly thousands, have died and more than 40,000 refugees have fled to Sudan since the conflict erupted on November 4, and up to 200,000 will be expected in the next six to 12 months, the UN's refugee agency said Monday.