0307 GMT January 17, 2021
More than two weeks into Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s offensive, his government said Tigrayan forces were digging in and using bulldozers to plow up roads around their capital Mekelle, home to about half a million people, Reuters reported.
Hundreds, possibly thousands, have died and more than 30,000 refugees have fled to Sudan. The conflict has spread beyond Tigray, whose forces have fired rockets at the neighboring Amhara region and the nation of Eritrea, spurring concern of a wider war.
Abiy’s government has said it will soon reach Mekelle after taking various surrounding towns. On Saturday, it said Adigrat had also fallen, about 116 kilometers (72 miles) north of Mekelle.
There was no immediate response from the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) rebels who have promised “hell” for the advancing federal troops. The TPLF had said on Friday its forces were making progress on the southern and northern fronts.
The AU has appointed former presidents of Mozambique, Liberia and South Africa, Joaquim Chissano, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and Kgalema Motlanthe respectively, as special envoys to seek a cease-fire and mediation talks.
Abiy, who won the Nobel Peace Prize last year for a peace pact with neighboring Eritrea, has said he wants to remove the TPLF leaders before talking.
He accuses them of revolting against central authority and attacking federal troops in the town of Dansha. The rebel leaders say Abiy’s government has marginalized and persecuted Tigrayans since taking office two years ago.
Abiy denies that, saying he is seeking only to restore law and order and preserve the unity of Ethiopia and its 115 million people.
“News circulating that the envoys will be traveling to Ethiopia to mediate between the Federal Government and TPLF’s criminal element is fake,” the government tweeted on Saturday.
The United Nations and other aid agencies have spoken of catastrophe in Tigray, where many among the population of more than five million were already displaced and relying on food aid even before the conflict.
Refugees have given accounts of widespread destruction in aerial bombardment and ground fighting.
Satellite images given to Reuters by US-based space company Maxar Technologies showed destroyed buildings lining the main road near the airport in Dansha, where the conflict broke out.
The government has appointed an alternative interim government to run Tigray. Its new head hinted this week at potential forgiveness for TPLF rank-and-file, while the party itself is now outlawed.