Ethiopia Claims Victory in Tigray Conflict After Shelling Restive Region’s Capital

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ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — Ethiopia claimed victory in its conflict with the restive region of Tigray on Saturday, after a daylong series of artillery strikes against the regional capital, a city of half a million people.

With communications shut off, there was no way to independently confirm the government’s claim, and the leadership of Tigray had vowed earlier in the day to mount a stiff resistance to the government assault.

The shelling of the city, Mekelle, came two days after Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, had ordered the start of what he called the third and final phase of an operation aimed at removing the northern state’s ruling Tigray People’s Liberation Front, until recently the dominant power in the national government.

On Saturday evening, Ethiopia’s state broadcaster reported that Mekelle was now “under control” of the central government and that federal forces in the city are “searching all suspected areas the junta might be hiding,” referring to the T.P.L.F.

“I am pleased to share that we have completed and ceased the military operations in the Tigray region,” Mr. Abiy posted to Twitter Saturday night. “Our focus now will be on rebuilding the region and providing humanitarian assistance while federal police apprehend the T.P.L.F. clique.”

Earlier on Saturday, the leadership of the T.P.L.F., whose decades-long political and economic clout has waned considerably since Mr. Abiy took office in 2018, vowed not to surrender and called upon local citizens to resist the army.

“We are fighting in respect to our right to self-determination and self-rule,” the T.P.L.F. leader, Debretsion Gebremichael, said in a text message on Saturday, confirming heavy shelling on the city throughout the day.

”Abiy will not be able to arrest T.P.L.F.’s members,” he said. “They will die with their belief. Give in? You have to understand we’ll continue fighting as long as they are in our land.”

Even if the government’s control of the capital is verified, analysts have warned that its military could still face a long and brutal guerrilla war with the T.P.L.F., which has a large and heavily armed militia.

Before Saturday’s shelling, many of Mekelle’s residents had begun fleeing to rural areas, fearing they could be caught in the crossfire in the central government’s battle with the local governing party,

There were no immediate news of casualties or specific targets hit by Saturday’s offensive. With access to the region blocked, there have been few reliable reports about the impact of the fighting since Mr. Abiy launched the military offensive just over three weeks ago.

About 40,000 refugees from the region have crossed into neighboring Sudan, according to the United Nations, and hundreds of people have been reported to have died in the fighting.

The central government’s military operation in the Tigray region began on Nov. 4, after Mr. Abiy accused the T.P.L.F. of attacking a government defense post and trying to steal artillery and military equipment.

The T.P.L.F. has said its forces had pre-emptively moved to take over strategic military assets after seeing federal army units move north in the days leading up to the conflict.

The two sides have been engaged in a long-simmering feud, which intensified in September when Tigray held parliamentary elections, even though they had been postponed by the central government because of the coronavirus pandemic. In October, Ethiopian lawmakers cut off federal funding to the region as punishment.

International aid groups and the United Nations have been frustrated by the lack of access to the region to deliver aid.

Catherine Sozi, the U.N. resident coordinator in Ethiopia, said testimonies from aid workers returning in recent days revealed that the humanitarian situation “still remains dire.”

“No cash, no fuel, no telecoms,” Ms. Sozi said, adding that access to health care, food and clean water also remained an issue for people in Tigray.

The central government on Thursday said it would begin delivering its own aid to areas under federal control. “Reinforced supplies are currently in transport to federal-controlled areas,” said Billene Seyoum, a spokeswoman for the prime minister.

Mr. Abiy, the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 who promised to transform his country by ending decades of repression and opening up the economy, has so far resisted calls for international mediation in the conflict.

The 55-nation African Union has appointed former presidents Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, and Kgalema Motlanthe of South Africa to mediate in the crisis.

The three envoys held talks with Mr. Abiy on Friday during which he refused to back down.

Mr. Abiy “expressed the federal government’s mandated responsibility to enforce rule of law in the region and across the country,” his office said in a statement issued after the talks in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital. “Failure to do so would nurture a culture of impunity with devastating cost to the survival of the country.”

The T.P.L.F. leadership has said forces from neighboring Eritrea have joined with the central government in attacking Mekelle.

“Today the forces of Abiy Ahmed and Isaias Afwerki bombarded the densely populated town center and infrastructure of Mekelle with heavy artillery,” the Tigray state broadcaster reported, referring to the president of Eritrea. “They have also conducted air raids on several sites in Mekelle.”

Mr. Abiy’s government has denied that Eritrean troops have played any role in the conflict.

International concern has been mounting that the turbulence could spill over into other restive regions in Ethiopia, a nation of more than 110 million people. In neighboring Somalia, Ethiopian peacekeepers belonging to the Tigray ethnic group have been confined to their barracks and disarmed.

In Washington, the State Department’s top Africa policy official condemned the violence in the Tigray region.

“Fighting and shelling in the Mekele area are a very grave concern,” Tibor P. Nagy Jr., the assistant secretary of state for Africa, said in a Twitter message on Saturday. “We urge an immediate end to conflict and restoration of peace in Tigray. Civilians must be protected and humanitarian access provided to aid those in need.”

Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington.

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