The UN has said it is preparing for as many as 200,000 refugees to flee unrest in the coming months.

ADDIS ABABA: Ethiopia’s military on Sunday warned of an all-out assault on Mekele, capital of the Tigray region, telling civilians to flee while they still can.

“The next decisive battle is to surround Mekele with tanks,” Dejene Tsegaye, a military spokesman, told state broadcasters on Sunday, threatening a siege of the city.

He added a warning for Mekele’s half a million residents: “Save yourself. A directive has been communicated for you to dissociate yourself from this junta, after that there will be no mercy.”

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed — last year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner — launched a military campaign against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) on November 4, accusing it of attacking two federal military camps in the region, and of defying his government and seeking to destabilise it.

– Communications blackout –

A communications blackout in the region has made claims from both sides difficult to verify but hundreds of people are reported to have been killed while tens of thousands have fled the fighting into neighbouring Sudan.

Abiy’s government has claimed the capture of a string of towns in recent days, including the ancient city of Aksum and the town of Edega Hamus, 100 kilometres (60 miles) north of Mekele.

“Defence forces have controlled Edaga Hamus city, which is on the road from Adigrat to Mekele,” the Ethiopia State of Emergency Fact Check, a government agency, said Sunday.

“The defence forces are currently marching on the campaign’s last goal, Mekele city.”

TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael promised “fierce fighting” to hold up the Ethiopian Defence Forces (EDF) advance. “They’ll continue to pay for every move,” he told AFP.

Debretsion warned that an assault on Mekele will not be the conflict’s endgame. “As long as the occuption force is in Tigray, fighting will not stop,” he said.

– Allies to bitter enemies –

The TPLF led the overthrow of Mengistu Hailemariam, head of Ethiopia’s military Derg regime, in 1991 and dominated the country’s politics until Abiy became prime minister in 2018.

The party continues to rule Tigray, one of 10 regional states under Ethiopia’s system of federalism whereby regions are delineated by ethnicity and language.

TPLF leaders have complained of being sidelined by Abiy and blamed for the country’s woes.

The bitter feud with the central government led the TPLF to hold their own elections this year despite the postponement of national polls due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Abiy has spurned all calls for peace, including from the African Union — which plans to send three former national presidents as special envoys in the coming days — and from the US and the UN which has warned of a looming humanitarian disaster.

His government regards the TPLF as a criminal administration and appears intent on winning the military battle rather than negotiating.

Military action has already spread beyond Tigray’s borders with the TPLF firing rockets at Asmara, the capital of neighbouring Eritrea to the north, which it accuses of supporting the Ethiopian government, and at the city of Bahir Dar to the southwest.

The campaign has seen warplanes bombing Tigray and heavy fighting.

Amnesty International has documented a gruesome massacre in which “scores, and likely hundreds, of people were stabbed or hacked to death” in the southwestern town of Mai-Kadra.

The UN has called for the opening of humanitarian corridors to allow aid agencies access, and has said it is preparing for as many as 200,000 refugees to flee the unrest in the coming months.

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