Tigrayan fighters have reportedly taken control of more territory in the embattled northern Ethiopian region of Tigray, a day after regaining the regional capital, Mekelle, from retreating federal government forces and pledging to drive all “enemies” out.
The military advances and rhetoric cast doubt on whether a unilateral ceasefire declared on Monday by the federal government in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, would actually lead to a pause in the nearly eight-month-old conflict that has killed thousands of people, displaced millions and pushed hundreds of thousands to be facing famine conditions.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent troops into Tigray last November to remove the northern region’s former ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). He said the move came in response to TPLF attacks on federal army camps, an allegation rejected by the TPLF which accused Abiy’s government and neighbouring Eritrea of launching a “coordinated attack” against it.
In late November, Abiy, the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner, declared victory after federal troops entered the regional capital, Mekelle. But on Monday, the federal government’s operation suffered a heavy blow when the Tigrayan forces retook the city, only about a week after launching a major counter-offensive.
A statement overnight from Tigray’s prewar government hailed the gains and called for its fighters to press further. “The government of Tigray calls upon our people and army of Tigray to intensify their struggle until our enemies completely leave Tigray,” it said.
On Tuesday, the Tigrayan forces entered the town of Shire, about 140km (90 miles) northwest of Mekelle, according to a UN security source and a security assessment document seen by AFP news agency.
The International Crisis Group, a conflict prevention organisation, said on Tuesday the Tigrayan fighters were “now in control of most of the region, including major towns”, according to AFP.
They achieved these gains “mainly through mass popular support and capturing arms and supplies from adversaries,” said senior analyst William Davison.
The news has prompted street celebrations in multiple locations as federal soldiers, their Eritrean allies and members of an Abiy-appointed interim regional government have fled their posts.
“The population has taken to the streets in droves. Huge crowds line the main routes and movement is somewhat difficult,” a UN security assessment document said.
On Tuesday evening, Getachew Reda, a spokesman for Tigrayan forces, told AFP they were prepared to chase their opponents well beyond Tigray – even as far as the capitals of Ethiopia and neighbouring Eritrea, which has allied itself with Abiy.
“We’ll do whatever it takes to secure Tigray. If marching to Asmara is what it takes to secure Tigray, we will do it. If marching to Addis is what it takes to secure Tigray, we will do it,” Getachew said. “Nothing is off the table,” he added, dismissing the ceasefire declaration as “a joke”.
Communications were cut throughout Tigray on Tuesday, making it difficult to verify reports of troop movements. But by Tuesday afternoon, UN officials had confirmed the Tigrayan forces were in Shire, according to AFP.
Besides Shire, the Associated Press news agency reported that Eritrean soldiers – accused by witnesses of some of the war’s worst atrocities – had also left the towns of Axum and Adwa. People in close contact with witnesses who confirmed the withdrawal spoke on condition of anonymity for their safety.
It was not immediately clear, however, where the Eritrean troops were going or whether the retreat was temporary. There was no immediate comment by Eritrea’s information ministry.
“We don’t yet know if they are withdrawing” from Tigray altogether, Robert Godec, the acting United States assistant secretary of state, told the House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs. He said the US had seen no statement from Eritrea, nor from the Tigray fighters, saying they are committed to the ceasefire announced by Abiy’s government.
In addition to Eritrea, federal forces have received support from Ethiopia’s Amhara region, which borders Tigray to the south.
Amhara forces have been accused of annexing portions of Tigray in what US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has described as “ethnic cleansing”.
In a statement on Tuesday, the Amhara branch of Abiy’s ruling party said it would reject any attempt by Tigrayan forces to take back that land.
“We want to reiterate that if there is a desire to wrest these areas by force unlawfully, there will be no Amhara that won’t pay for his freedom,” it said.
Al Jazeera’s Malcolm Webb, reporting from Nairobi, the capital of neighbouring Kenya, said there are “big questions about what’s going on now across the whole” of Tigray, underlining the difficulty of confirming reports due to the communications blackout.
“It’s not clear at all if we’re actually any closer to having any peace and stability across the region at all,” Webb said.
The Tigrayan forces’ current offensive was timed to coincide with Ethiopia’s highly anticipated national elections, which took place June 21 in much of the country – though not in Tigray – and were expected to deliver Abiy a comfortable victory.
The brutal war in Tigray has been marked by massacres, widespread sexual violence and other abuses. The United Nations has also warned that roughly 350,000 people face starvation, while the US has put the figure to 900,000.
That famine “is entirely man-made”, the acting US assistant secretary of state said.
Sarah Charles, assistant to the administrator for the United States Agency for International Development, told the Washington hearing that the next week or two will be consequential. She urged Ethiopia to lift a “communications blackout” on Tigray and said forces from the neighbouring Amhara region who have occupied western Tigray must lift checkpoints on key roads for aid delivery.
UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters on Tuesday that “the impact of the current situation on the humanitarian operations in the region remains unknown right now.” Operations have been “constrained for the past few days due to the ongoing fighting”.
The airport in Mekelle was closed, and routes to deliver aid were not open, he said.
In announcing its ceasefire on Monday, the federal government said it would last until the end of the current “farming season” and was intended to facilitate agricultural production and aid distribution while allowing rebel fighters “to return to a peaceful road”.
Britain, the United States and Ireland have called for an emergency UN Security Council public meeting, which could happen on Friday, diplomats said.
The Security Council has failed to hold a public session on Tigray since the war erupted, with many African countries, China, Russia and other nations deeming the crisis an internal Ethiopian affair.