Federal forces say they have seized control of Wikro town, 50km north of Makelle, as they march to the regional capital.
Ethiopian forces will take control of the Tigray region’s capital in the coming days, the military said late on Friday, a day after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced the “final phase” of an offensive in the region.
Federal forces seized control of Wikro, a town 50 kilometres (30 miles) north of Mekelle and “will control Mekelle in a few days”, Lieutenant-General Hassan Ibrahim said in a statement. Government troops had also taken control of several other towns, he said.
The Reuters news agency was not immediately able to reach the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) for comment or to verify the statement.
Claims by all sides in the three-week-old conflict between government and TPLF forces have been impossible to verify because phone and internet connections to the region are down and access to the area is tightly controlled.
Last Sunday, the government gave the TPLF until Wednesday to lay down arms or face an assault on Mekelle, a city of 500,000 people, raising fears among aid groups of extensive civilian casualties.
Abiy announced military operations in Tigray on November 4 after months of friction between his government and the TPLF. His government and the one in Tigray led by the TPLF consider each other illegitimate.
Abiy, the winner of last year’s Nobel Peace Prize, accused 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.
Abiy, who announced on Thursday the military was beginning the “final phase” of its offensive, told the African Union’s peace envoys a day later his government will protect civilians in Tigray and is willing to talk to representatives “operating legally” in the region.
A statement issued by the prime minister’s office after their meeting, however, made no mention of talks with the TPLF to end the fighting.
The statement issued after Abiy met the African Union envoys – former Presidents Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia, Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique and Kgalema Motlanthe of South Africa – added the government was committed to the “protection and security of civilians”.
The statement thanked the envoys for imparting their “wisdom, insights, and readiness to support in any way they are needed” and did not mention any plans for further discussions with them.
The envoys had been sent to Addis Ababa to help mediate in the conflict, something Abiy had already made clear he did not want as he rejected any foreign “interference”.
Rockets target Eritrea
Meanwhile, at least one rocket fired from Tigray targeted Eritrea on Friday night, four regional diplomats told the AFP news agency – the second such attack since Ethiopia’s internal conflict broke out earlier this month.
There was no immediate confirmation of how many rockets were fired, where they landed, and any casualties or damage caused.
The TPLF has accused Ethiopia of enlisting Eritrean military support in the fighting, a charge Ethiopia denies.
The group claimed responsibility for similar attacks on Eritrea two weeks ago, but there was no immediate comment from its leaders on Friday.
Thousands of people are already believed to have been killed following air attacks and ground fighting.
The United Nations estimates 1.1 million Ethiopians will need aid as a result of the conflict, which has sent shockwaves through the Horn of Africa and threatens to involve neighbouring countries.
More than 43,000 refugees have fled to Sudan, with the UN estimating that number to be 200,000 in six months.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres had stressed the need to ensure the protection of civilians, human rights and aid access and “appreciates the statement by Prime Minister Abiy today reaffirming the Federal Government’s utmost commitment to these obligations,” UN spokesman Farhan Haq said on Friday.
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