Rebels in Ethiopia’s conflict-hit Tigray region have reportedly seized control of more territory after retaking the local capital, Mekelle, vowing to drive all “enemies” out of the region.
The rebels said on Tuesday that they had government troops on the run from the region after taking full control of Mekelle.
“We are 100% in control of Mekelle,” Getachew Reda, spokesman for the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), told Reuters on Tuesday. “Our forces are still in hot pursuit to south, east, to continue until every square inch of territory is cleared from the enemy.”
The ousted TPLF was re-establishing itself in Mekelle and people could walk about again in the streets, he said, declining to answer a question about whether Tigray would now seek independence.
Communications were cut throughout Tigray, making it difficult to verify reports of battlefield gains. But two eyewitnesses told Reuters that the rebels had entered the key northern town of Shire on Tuesday.
READ ALSO: Calls grow to cancel Canada Day
“Everybody is welcoming them and celebrating. Now there are a lot (of Tigrayan forces) and most of them are in uniform,” one resident told Reuters, referring to the rebels. Both eyewitnesses declined to be named for fear of retaliation.
The sharp turn in favor of the rebels came after the Ethiopian government, which was under international pressure to end eight months of conflict in Tigray, announced a unilateral ceasefire earlier this week.
The government of Ethiopian Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said it aimed to facilitate agricultural production and aid distribution while allowing the rebels “to return to a peaceful road.”
United Nations (UN) spokesman Stephane Dujarric said on Tuesday that the impact of the ceasefire was unclear.
“Our humanitarian colleagues tell us there has been a breakdown in telecommunications and internet services in Tigray as of today, so the impact of the current situation on the humanitarian operations remains unknown,” Dujarric said.
In related news, a senior US State Department official warned on Tuesday that the governments in both Ethiopia and neighboring Eritrea should anticipate action by the United States if the ceasefire did not lead to improvements in the Tigray region.
“We will not stand by in the face of the horrors in Tigray,” claimed Robert Godec, acting assistant secretary of state for the State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs, without specifying exactly what action the US might take.
Also, US State Department spokesperson Ned Price said that the ceasefire could be a positive development if it helped “to end the conflict, stop the atrocities, and allow unhindered humanitarian assistance.”
Price reiterated a call for withdrawal of Eritrean forces from Ethiopian territory as a necessary step for a durable peace.
Tigray has been embroiled in conflict since Abiy waged a war in November last year on the once-dominant regional ruling party TPLF, which has now rebranded itself as the Tigray Defense Forces (TDF), accusing them of launching attacks on federal army troops based in the region.
The conflict has killed thousands of people and forced more than two million from their homes in the mountainous region.
A UN report released earlier this month warned that due to the months-long conflict, over 350,000 people in Tigray were facing famine and over two million were just a step away. UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock has told the Security Council that the Tigray administration has reported deaths from starvation.
Britain’s Ambassador to the UN Barbara Woodward also called for humanitarian access.
“While the violence continues, it is not only condemning the people of Tigray to desperate hunger this year, but next year, too,” Woodward said.
“The solution is clear: a ceasefire, humanitarian access, and political dialog,” she added.
Meanwhile, Ethiopian political and military leaders have yet to comment on the sudden reversal of the equation on the battlefield in Tigray.