The Ethiopian army announced Saturday that it had taken full control of Mekelle, the capital of the Tigray region.
“God bless Ethiopia and its people!” Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said in a statement. “We have entered Mekelle without innocent civilians being targets.”
But the leader of Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) forces told Reuters they were not giving up.
“Their brutality can only add [to] our resolve to fight these invaders to the last,” TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael said in a text message. Asked by Reuters if that meant his forces would continue fighting, he replied: “Certainly. This is about defending our right to self-determination.”
Earlier, Gebremichael told Reuters that Mekelle, a city of about 500,000, was under “heavy bombardment” in the final push of the four-week offensive.
In a statement, Abiy outlined the future.
“We now have ahead of us the critical task of rebuilding what was destroyed; repairing what was damaged; returning those who have fled, with the utmost priority of returning normalcy to the people of the Tigray region,” he said.
Federal police will now arrest the TPLF leaders, who will face trial, he said.
It was not clear if any of the TPLF leaders had surrendered. Debretsion said in a text message to Reuters that their forces were withdrawing from around Mekelle.
The TPLF ran the Tigray regional government and dominated the federal government for more than a quarter-century until Abiy was elected in 2018. His reforms won him the Nobel Peace Prize for ending a two-decade standoff with Eritrea but sidelined the TPLF leaders.
Zadig Abraha, Abiy’s minister in charge of democratization, told The Associated Press in a phone interview that the Ethiopian government didn’t yet know the number of people killed in the conflict.
“We have kept the civilian casualty very low,” he told the AP.
Zadig said that “once we’ve made sure there’s no security threat,” a humanitarian corridor will be allowed within days. As for restoring communications to Tigray, “it depends on the kind of damage sustained,” he said.
Asked about allowing independent investigations into alleged abuses during four weeks of fighting, Zadig replied, “We have nothing to hide.”
“One of the reforms we introduced was transparency. But it depends on the situation,” he said.
Humanitarians and human rights groups have reported at least several hundred dead, including combatants, since fighting began.
Ethiopia’s Human Rights Commission on Tuesday issued a preliminary report alleging at least 600 people had been killed in the Tigray region town of Mai-Kadra on November 9, echoing similar findings by a November 12 Amnesty International report.
“I invite everyone to pray for Ethiopia where armed clashes have intensified and are causing a serious humanitarian situation,” Pope Francis tweeted Saturday.
“Fighting and shelling in the Mekelle area are a very grave concern. We urge an immediate end to conflict and restoration of peace in Tigray,” the top U.S. diplomat for Africa, Tibor Nagy, tweeted.
Abiy announced a military offensive against the regional government in Tigray on November 4, saying it was in response to an attack by Tigray forces on a government military base.
Nearly 1 million people have been displaced, including more than 43,000 refugees who fled to Sudan.
The International Rescue Committee said Friday that it was extremely concerned about an impending humanitarian disaster, noting that a half-million people live in Mekelle.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres stressed Friday the need to ensure the protection of civilians, human rights and aid access, according to U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq.Abiy accuses Tigrayan leaders of starting the war by attacking federal troops at a base in Tigray. The TPLF says the attack was a pre-emptive strike.