Ethiopia’s military warned civilians in Tigray region’s capital there will be “no mercy” if they don’t “save themselves” before a final offensive to flush out defiant regional leaders.
The United Nations has urged Ethiopia to ensure the protection of civilians, a day after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed gave Tigrayan forces 72 hours to surrender before a military offensive on the regional capital of Mekelle.
Hundreds, possibly thousands, have been killed in fighting that erupted on November 4 between Ethiopian federal forces and Tigray's regional army, sending more than 30,000 refugees into neighbouring Sudan.
Catherine Sozi, the UN humanitarian coordinator for Ethiopia, told Reuters that she hoped for the guarantee of safety and security of aid workers and the "protection of more than 525,000 civilians (non-combatants) who live in Mekelle".
She also asked for the "protection of all civilian infrastructure like health facilities, schools and water system ... of civilian importance."
Thousands of Ethiopians are forced to flee due to ongoing violence in the #Tigray region.@UNEthiopia, @UNERITREA, @UNSudan & @UNDjibouti are working together to address the challenges. Check out how our @UN Team in Sudan🇸🇩🇺🇳 is supporting refugees.https://t.co/eF6olTbLv8 pic.twitter.com/HXxhiYge6T— UN Sustainable Development Group 🇺🇳 (@UN_SDG) November 19, 2020
In a statement on Twitter, the government's emergency task force said, "Our women and men in uniform have shown great care to protect civilians from harm during the law enforcement operation they have carried out in Tigray so far."
On Saturday night, Ethiopia’s military warned civilians in the besieged Tigray regional capital that there will be “no mercy” if they don’t “save themselves” before the final offensive to flush out defiant regional leaders – a threat that Human Rights Watch said could violate international law.
“From now on, the fighting will be a tank battle,” spokesman Colonel Dejene Tsegaye said, asserting that the army was marching on the Tigray capital, Mekelle, and would encircle it with tanks.
“Our people in Mekele should be notified that they should protect themselves from heavy artillery.”
He accused the Tigray leaders of hiding among the population of the city of roughly a half-million people and warned civilians to “steer away” from them.
But “treating a whole city as a military target would not only unlawful, it could also be considered a form of collective punishment,” Human Rights Watch researcher Laetitia Bader tweeted on Sunday.
“In other words, war crimes,” former U.S. national security adviser Susan Rice tweeted.
Rebels have also fired rockets into the neighbouring region of Amhara, and across the border into the nation of Eritrea.
On Sunday, Abiy gave Tigrayan regional forces 72 hours to surrender before the military begins an offensive on Mekelle.
"We urge you to surrender peacefully within 72 hours, recognising that you are at the point of no return," Abiy said in a message posted on Twitter on Sunday.
Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) leader Debretsion Gebremichael called the government's deadline for Tigrayan forces "cover for defeat on three fronts".