African Union envoys went to Ethiopia on Wednesday hours before an ultimatum was to expire for Tigrayan forces to surrender in a war that has shaken the northern region and killed thousands of its fighters according to one report.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government has set a 72-hour deadline for the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) to lay down arms or face an assault on their highland capital Mekelle, home to half a million people.
The deadline was due to run out on Wednesday evening.
Large numbers have died and there has been widespread destruction in aerial bombardments and ground fighting since the war began on Nov. 4. Some 42,000 refugees have fled over the border to Sudan and TPLF rockets have hit neighbouring Eritrea.
AMMA news agency, run by authorities in Amhara region who back Abiy, said that more than 10,000 Tigrayan “junta forces” had been “destroyed” with more than 15,000 small arms and heavy weapons seized in battles from Dansha to Adwa.
There was no immediate response from the TPLF, Tigray’s dominant political party which is spearheading the fighting. It too has spoken of killing large numbers of its enemies during a stream of often contradictory claims by both sides.
With phone and internet connections to Tigray largely down and access to the area strictly controlled, Reuters could not verify the AMMA report – which quoted a military colonel but gave no evidence – or other statements from all sides.
A senior diplomat involved in the peace effort said he was surprised at the report of 10,000 Tigrayan casualties as it would imply pitched battles on a massive scale, and while that was not impossible he had seen no evidence.
Foreign concern was growing, he said, at indications of both “clear ethnic violence” and “Eritrean involvement in some way,” the diplomat told Reuters. Abiy, whose parents are from the larger Oromo and Amharic groups, has denied any ethnic overtones to his offensive, while Eritrea has rejected TPLF accusations that it sent troops over the border to back the federal push.
On the ground, long lines of cars formed at fuel stations in Mekelle, where there has been rationing, according to Nov. 23 satellite images provided to Reuters by Maxar Technologies.
Three African Union (AU) envoys – ex-presidents Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia and Kgalema Motlanthe of South Africa – were due into Ethiopia’s capital on Wednesday for meetings, diplomatic sources said.
Abiy, who won last year’s Nobel Peace Prize for ending a two-decade standoff with Eritrea, has said he will receive them but not talk with TPLF heads until they are defeated or give up.
European nations discussed the conflict at a closed-doors meeting of the United Nations Security Council on Tuesday, diplomats said. And U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s appointee as national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, urged dialogue.
“I’m deeply concerned about the risk of violence against civilians, including potential war crimes, in the fighting around Mekelle in Ethiopia,” he tweeted.
The conflict is also roiling the wider east Africa region.
Tigrayan forces have fired rockets at the airport of Eritrea’s capital Asmara, while Ethiopian soldiers have been pulled from peacekeeping missions in Somalia and South Sudan.
In Somalia, Ethiopia has disarmed several hundred Tigrayans in the AU peacekeeping force fighting al Qaeda-linked militants. Three soldiers of Tigrayan ethnicity were also sent home from a U.N. peacekeeping force in South Sudan.
The U.N. mission in South Sudan said it was aware of the soldiers’ repatriation from the 2,000-strong Ethiopian contingent, noting that discrimination due to ethnicity could violate international law.
Billene Seyoum, spokeswoman for the Ethiopian prime minister’s office, told Reuters the situation in South Sudan would be the same as Somalia, meaning soldiers sent home were suspected of TPLF links.
Ethiopia’s state-appointed human rights watchdog accused a Tigrayan youth group of killing about 600 civilians from other ethnic groups in a Nov. 9 attack on the town of Mai Kadra. The TPLF denies accusations of collusion, and accuses Abiy of persecuting Tigrayans in pursuit of personal power.
Rights commission head Daniel Bekele, a former political prisoner, said the perpetrators, identified as “Samri” from their neighbourhood group, had scattered, including possibly to other nearby towns and among refugees in Sudan.
“It is a harrowing story,” he told Reuters.
In Tigray, satellite images also showed Ethiopian troops in the ancient town of Axum and trenches dug across the local airport’s runway. Axum’s history and ruins give Ethiopia its claim to be one of the world’s oldest centres of Christianity.
Abiy repeated his position on Wednesday that the Tigray fighting was an internal law enforcement matter.
“Because the Ethiopian government has painted this as a domestic, criminal situation, they are shunning the type of diplomacy and international mediation efforts that they are typically a part of themselves in offering to regional states,” said Grant Harris, ex-senior director for African affairs at the National Security Council in Barack Obama’s U.S. administration.