0601 GMT January 16, 2021
“The beginning of the end is within reach,” said government spokesman Redwan Hussein of the nearly three-week offensive that has destabilized both Ethiopia and the wider Horn of Africa, Reuters reported.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has told the TPLF, which had been ruling the mountainous northern zone of five million people, to lay down arms by Wednesday or face a final assault on Mekelle.
TPLF leader, Debretsion Gebremichael, told Reuters that threat was a cover for government forces to regroup after what he described as defeats on three fronts.
Reuters could not verify the latest statements.
Claims by all sides are hard to verify because phone and Internet communication has been down.
Hundreds, possibly thousands, have been killed in fighting and airstrikes that erupted on November 4, sending about 40,000 refugees into neighboring Sudan. The conflict has spread beyond Tigray, with the TPLF firing rockets into both neighboring Amhara region and across the border to Eritrea.
Redwan told Reuters by text that federal forces were ringing Mekelle at a distance of about 50 kilometers (30 miles).
Tigrayan forces fired rockets on Monday at Bahir Dar, the capital of neighboring Amhara region whose authorities are supporting the federal offensive, he also said.
“So far, I didn’t hear of any casualties,” said a hotel receptionist in the lakeside city where residents reported a predawn rocket attack. “I guess now we are accustomed to it and there wasn’t much panic.”
TPLF troops had also destroyed the airport at the ancient town of Axum, a popular tourist draw and UNESCO World Heritage site which lies northwest of Mekelle, Redwan said.
The TPLF says Abiy has “invaded” their region to dominate them and is inflicting “merciless” damage on Tigrayans.
“We are people of principle and are ready to die in defense of our right to administer our region,” TPLF leader added in a text message to Reuters.
The African Union (AU) has appointed three envoys to try and start mediation talks over Tigray. Redwan said Abiy would meet them and all options were on the table except negotiating with the TPLF “gang”.
The United Nations’ humanitarian coordinator for Ethiopia, Catherine Sozi, urged safety guarantees for aid workers, Mekelle’s more than half a million inhabitants, and their health, school and water systems.