The Ethiopian army operation in Tigray is full, Prime Minister informed Reuters

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Amhara Special Force members return to Dansha’s 5th Division mechanized military base after fighting the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in Danasha, Amhara region, near the Tigray border

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ADDIS ABABA / NAIROBI (Reuters) – Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said on Saturday that military operations in the northern region of Tigray were completed shortly after he announced federal troops had taken full control of the regional capital, Mekelle.

“I am pleased to announce that we have completed and suspended military operations in the Tigray region,” he said in a tweet. Less than an hour earlier, he said in a statement: “The federal government now has full control over the city of Mekelle.”

There has been no immediate comment from the armed forces of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which have been fighting Ethiopian forces in a conflict that has sent shock waves through the Horn of Africa for three weeks.

Abiy said the police are looking for the TPLF leaders. It wasn’t clear if either of them had surrendered.

“The federal police will now continue their task of arresting TPLF criminals and bringing them to justice,” said the prime minister, who described the government offensive as an operation for law and order.

Claims from all sides are difficult to verify as phone and internet connections into the area have been cut and access has been tightly controlled since the fighting began.

Authorities had previously said that government forces were in the final stages of an offensive in the region and were concerned with protecting civilians in Mekelle, a town of 500,000.

Abiy said the army had secured the release of thousands of troops from Northern Command, a military unit stationed in Tigray, who had been held hostage by the TPLF.

Federal troops had taken control of “the airport, public facilities, the regional administration office and other critical facilities,” Abiy said.

State television said the federal forces had full control of the city until 7 p.m.

On Saturday before, a diplomat in direct contact with the residents and the leader of the Tigrayan armed forces had stated that the federal forces had launched an offensive to capture Mekelle.

The government had given the TPLF an ultimatum, expired Wednesday, to lay down weapons or face an attack on the city.

Thousands of people are believed to have died during the fighting this month and around 43,000 refugees have fled to neighboring Sudan.

Tigray also borders the nation of Eritrea and the conflict has raised concerns over an escalation in the country of 115 million people or in the region.

Abiy accuses Tigrayan leaders of starting the war by attacking federal troops at a base in Tigray. The TPLF says the attack was a preemptive strike.

Abiy told African peace ambassadors on Friday that his government would protect civilians in Tigray. The Prime Minister has said that he regards the conflict as an internal matter and that his government has so far rejected mediation attempts.

Not a word about losses

Abiy did not mention in his statements whether there had been casualties in the military offensive in order to catch Mekelle.

Rights groups were concerned that an attack on the city could result in significant civilian casualties.

The Prime Minister’s spokeswoman, Billene Seyoum, had said earlier on Saturday: “The security of the Ethiopians in the Mekelle and Tigray region remains a priority for the federal government.”

Debretsion Gebremichael, chairman of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), texted Reuters on Saturday that Mekelle was under “heavy bombardment”.

Billene said: “The Ethiopian National Defense Forces have no mission to bomb their own city and people. Mekelle remains one of Ethiopia’s key cities and efforts to bring the criminal clique to justice will not result in discriminatory ‘bombing’ as suggested by TPLF and their propagandists. “

Debretsion also accused the Eritrean military of crossing the border and raiding refugee camps in Tigray to catch refugees who have fled Eritrea in the past.

The Eritrean government has not responded to calls from Reuters for more than two weeks.

United Nations Refugee Agency chief Filippo Grandi said Saturday he was deeply concerned about the 100,000 Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia and unconfirmed reports of violence against them.

The TPLF and Eritrea are archenemies: The TPLF was responsible in Addis Ababa when Ethiopia and Eritrea were at war from 1998 to 2000. But Eritrea and Abiy have warm relationships. The Ethiopian government has denied TPLF allegations that Eritrean troops are operating on Ethiopian soil.

Eritrea is one of the most repressive nations in the world. There have never been any elections and there has been no independent media there for two decades. At the age of 18 Eritrean men and women have to enter the civil service for an indefinite period. Around 10% of the population have fled.

On Friday evening in Eritrea, “a loud noise, possibly an explosion,” was heard in the capital Asmara, the US embassy said in a statement on Saturday. TPLF missiles hit Eritrea on November 14th.

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, reflecting international concern over the three-week conflict, said on Saturday he was “very concerned” about reports of fighting in Mekelle and further missile attacks on Eritrea.

Tigrayans, who make up about 6% of Ethiopia’s 115 million people, dominated the government until Abiy took power two years ago.

Abiy promised to unite Ethiopians and establish freedoms after years of state repression that filled prisons with tens of thousands of political prisoners.

His government also tried high-ranking Tigrayan officials for crimes such as corruption, torture and murder. The Tigrayan region viewed these processes as discrimination.

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