Ethiopia’s prime minister said Saturday that the army occupied the capital of the northern region of Tigray two days after beginning what was described as a final offensive against the faction ruling the territory.
“The Federal government is now fully in control of the city of Mekelle,” Abiy Ahmed said in a statement. “With full command of the regional capital, this marks the completion of the ENDF (Ethiopian National Defense Forces)’s last phase.”
Word of Mekelle’s capture, which cannot be independently confirmed as Ethiopia has prevented the media from covering the conflict, comes after the regional administration, led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), defied an ultimatum to surrender or see their capital invaded by federal troops.
“Federal police will now continue their task of apprehending TPLF criminals and bring them to the court of law,” the prime minister said.
“The main operation is successfully concluded. We now have ahead of us the critical task of rebuilding what has been destroyed; repairing what is damaged; returning those who have fled, with the utmost priority of returning normalcy to the people of the Tigray region,” he said.
Thanking the “people of Tigray” for cooperating with the ENDF, he said that federal forces “entered Mekelle without innocent civilians being targets.”
Early Saturday, the TPLF said the Ethiopian military was striking the center of Mekelle – a city of some 500,000 people – “with heavy weaponry and artillery,” while reiterating the claim that forces from the neighboring nation of Eritrea were taking part in the offensive in Tigray.
Both the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments have denied that Eritrea is involved.
Abiy met here Friday with the former presidents of Mozambique, Joaquim Chissano; Liberia, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf; and South Africa, Kgalema Motlanthe, who were sent by the African Union on a mission to mediate between the warring parties.
The prime minister rejected the idea of dialogue with the TPLF, denouncing the group as a lawless “clique” and prohibiting the envoys from seeking to meet with the rebel leaders.
Abiy, winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize for signing a treaty that officially ended Ethiopia’s war with Eritrea, ordered the ENDF to move against Tigray on Nov. 4 after the TPLF attacked a federal army base in the region.
Hundreds of people have died since the fighting began and more than 43,000 Ethiopians have sought refuge in neighboring Sudan.
While Tigrayans make up only around 5 percent of Ethopia’s population of 110 million, the TPLF dominated national politics from the overthrow of the Communist government in 1991 until November 2018, when Abiy, a member of the Oromo ethnic group, became prime minister.
In late 2019, Abiy created the Prosperity Party as a successor to the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) in furtherance of his program to move Ethiopia away from ethnic federalism.
The TPLF, which had been the most powerful element in the EPRDF, refused to join the Prosperity Party.
After months of growing tension between Tigray and the federal government, Abiy’s decision to indefinitely postpone the general elections scheduled for August because of Covid-19 served as a flashpoint.
The TPLF went forward in September with regional parliamentary elections that the central government labeled as illegal. At the same time, the Tigray administration said that it would no longer recognize the authority of the federal government because Abiy’s mandate expired on Oct. 5.