Ethiopian federal forces reportedly used heavy artillery to bombard Mekelle, the capital of the northern Tigray region, with shells hitting the outskirts of the city of 500,000.
Reports of further violence around Mekelle on Saturday come almost a week after Abiy Ahmed, the prime minister, told leaders and forces of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the ruling party in the region restless, surrender or face an assault on their stronghold. .
Debretsion Gebremichael, the TPLF chief, told Reuters in text messages that the city was under “heavy bombardment” and the Ethiopian military was using artillery.
Aid workers in Mekelle said explosions were seen and heard around 10 a.m., although it was not clear whether artillery or airstrikes were responsible.
Billene Seyoum, spokesperson for the Prime Minister’s office, denied this assertion, saying that “the Ethiopian national defense forces are not responsible for bombing its own city and its people”.
« [Mekelle] remains one of Ethiopia’s key cities and efforts to bring the criminal clique to justice will not result in discriminatory “bombings” as the TPLF and its propagandists have alluded to, ”Seyoum said.
In recent days, Ethiopian federal forces have strengthened their positions in a rugged ring road around Mekelle, at a distance of 20 to 40 km. This would put the city within heavy artillery fire range at its maximum range in some places.
Fighting over the past week has included clashes at ridge lines, mountain passes and major road junctions, with many casualties.
With communications with Tigray cut off, it is difficult to confirm conflicting information and claims.
Earlier this week, military officials warned of “no mercy” if residents of Mekelle do not distance themselves from the TPLF. Ahmed on Friday said he remained determined to continue the military offensive launched three weeks ago in Tigray and “uphold the rule of law in the region and in the country”.
The 44-year-old leader, who won the Nobel Peace Prize last year, promised civilians would be protected. In practice, however, it is difficult to see how to avoid civilian casualties during a bombardment or combat in Mekelle.
Western diplomats in the region and observers have said Abiy may be reluctant to order a full-blown attack on Mekelle, which will cost Ethiopian troops and civilians dearly and could tip international opinion against him.
One of them said: “So far the Ethiopians have withheld all the pressure from the UN, the US, the Pope, the African Union, whoever… but it would become a lot. more difficult if they all moved to Mekelle. But then [Abiy] can’t back down either. Some bombings or airstrikes at the moment are therefore a compromise. “
The state-affiliated Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation said federal forces had identified key TPLF lairs in Mekelle, including an auditorium and a museum. Government planes dropped leaflets over the city warning residents not to be in danger.
Some residents have fled, with satellite images revealing long lines of vehicles at gas stations earlier in the week.
The International Crisis Group said: “A humanitarian disaster could unfold in Mekelle…. Entering a densely populated city would result in a huge and intolerable toll for civilians [and] seriously damage Ethiopia’s international reputation.
Analysts doubt the TPLF high command, which withdrew to Tigray earlier this year as tensions with the central government escalated, will remain in Mekelle, but will likely have dispersed to remote hiding places.
Abiy met with envoys sent by the African Union on Friday to negotiate an end to the crisis, but they were not allowed to travel to meet with TPLF officials and gave no sign that the national government was considering a cease-fires or negotiations.
On Friday, the TPLF renewed a call for talks.
“Tigray … is ravaged by war … an immediate cessation [of hostilities] is of paramount importance, ”said Getachew Reda, political adviser to the leader of the TPLF.
Ethiopian officials have made it clear that they do not recognize the TPLF as a legitimate negotiating partner.
A statement from Abiy’s office said: “Failure to apply the rule of law [in Tigray] nurture a culture of impunity by [Ethiopia] with devastating consequences. “
Abiy launched the military campaign on November 4, accusing the TPLF of attacking federal military camps in Tigray and seeking to destabilize the country.
The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission has also blamed TPLF-linked militias for the massacre of several hundred workers in the neighboring Amhara region of Tigray.
The TPLF denies the charges, saying they are concocted by the government as a pretext to launch a military operation to end its rule in Tigray. The party says it defends its legitimate rights under Ethiopia’s decentralized constitutional system.
The Ethiopian authorities have made some concessions to international pressure, offering to set up a humanitarian corridor to allow aid to reach the tens of thousands of people displaced by the fighting, and many more who are suffering from the disruption of food, fuel and medicine supplies.
Western diplomats and aid officials said the pledges were welcome but nothing had changed on the ground.
“It’s heartening to hear that sort of thing, but until there is a real movement to allow aid to Tigray, it won’t mean much,” said one. them. “The idea of creating a humanitarian corridor under government control poses serious problems.”
Last week, the UN said shortages were “very critical” in Tigray, with a breakdown in fuel and money. Food for nearly 100,000 refugees from Eritrea will disappear within a week, according to a report released overnight, and more than 600,000 people who depend on monthly food rations have not received it this month.
Fuel is essential as electricity is cut off in much of the region, making diesel generators essential.