Tigrayan forces said they had Ethiopian government troops on the run around the regional capital Mekelle on Tuesday after taking full control of the city in a sharp reversal of eight months of conflict.
People in Mekelle, where communications were cut on Monday, said the incoming Tigrayan fighters were greeted with cheers. Video footage from a resident in the northern town of Shire who said government-allied Eritrean forces had pulled out showed similar scenes.
“We are 100% in control of Mekelle,” Getachew Reda, spokesman for the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), told Reuters on Tuesday.
There had been some fighting on the outskirts of the city, but that was now finished, he said, adding that he could not confirm the report from Shire.
“Our forces are still in hot pursuit to south, east, to continue until every square inch of territory is cleared from the enemy,” he said.
Aid agencies would be given full access to Tigray, he added. The fighting in Ethiopia’s northern region has killed thousands of people, displaced two million and brought hundreds of thousands to the brink of famine.
Ethiopia’s government declared a unilateral ceasefire on Monday and UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said he hoped a political solution could be found. Diplomats said the UN Security Council would meet to discuss Tigray this week.
It was not clear if the unilateral ceasefire would be observed by other parties to the conflict. The Ethiopian military spokesman, Eritrean information minister and Amahara regional spokesman all said they were unable to comment.
Over the next few days, TPLF forces will go after troops allied to the government from the neighbouring Amhara region – in the south and west – and from the neighbouring nation of Eritrea in the north and northwest of Tigray, the spokesman said, adding they would cross borders in pursuit if necessary.
Reuters could not independently verify his statement because almost all phone links to Tigray are down. But on Monday evening when it was still possible to call the Mekelle, residents said soldiers had disappeared from the streets and TPLF forces had entered the city. Residents greeted them with flags and songs, witnesses said.
A spokeswoman for Ethiopia’s prime minister and the head of a government taskforce on Tigray did not return messages seeking comment.
On Tuesday, residents said Eritrean forces could no longer be seen in Shire, a large town at the junction of several main roads.
“There’s not a single Eritrean in town,” one resident of Shire told Reuters. He sent a short video of residents crowded onto vehicles, beeping wildly and waving a large gold and red Tigray flag.
Another resident in Shire told Reuters “overnight there was a massive movement of Eritrean troops from Axum, Shire to Sheraro direction.” Sheraro is close to the Eritrean border.
Famine and rights abuses
Ethiopia is awaiting results of national and regional parliamentary elections held on 21 June. Voting was only held in three of the nation’s ten regions due to insecurity and logistical problems.
No voting was held in Tigray where the TPLF, an ethnically based political party that dominated Ethiopia’s national politics for nearly three decades, has been battling the central government since early November. It made major territorial gains in the past week.
The fighting has been punctuated by reports of brutal gang-rapes and mass killings of civilians. At least 12 aid workers have been killed.
At least 350 000 people are facing famine and 5 million others need immediate food aid, the United Nations has said – the worst global food crisis in a decade. The UN says government forces and their allies have repeatedly blocked aid convoys in Tigray and nearly 1 million people have been cut off from aid since the convoy began.
Last week, an Ethiopian military airstrike on a crowded market killed at least 64 people and wounded 180 other people. Doctors said women and children were among the dead and wounded and that Ethiopian troops prevented ambulances from reaching the scene for more than a day. The military said the victims were combatants.