Richmond Times-Dispatch

Ethiopian army told to move on Tigray capital, minister says

- BY CARA ANNA

NAIROBI, Kenya— Ethiopia’s prime minister said Thursday the army has been ordered to move on the embattled Tigray regional capital after his 72-hour ultimatum ended for Tigray leaders to surrender, and he warned the city’s half-million residents to stay indoors and disarm.

Instead, “an increasing number of people continues to leave Mekele” even after the deadline expired, U.N. humanitari­an spokesman Saviano Abreu said. They join tens of thousands of newly displaced people throughout the region that remains almost completely sealed off from the world, beyond the reach of desperatel­y needed food and other aid.

The military offensive “has reached its final stage” after three weeks of fighting, Prime Minister

Abiy Ahmed’s office said. That means tanks and other weaponry can close in on Mekele, whose residents were warned of “no mercy” if they didn’t move away from the defiant Tigray leaders in time.

That caused internatio­nal alarm as rights groups said such wording could violate internatio­nal law and put civilians in further danger. “We will take utmost care to protect civilians,” Abiy’s statement said. It also asserted that thousands of Tigray militia and special forces surrendere­d during the 72-hour period.

Tigray regional leaders couldn’t immediatel­y be reached. With communicat­ions and transport links severed, it remains difficult to verify claims in the fighting that erupted Nov. 4 between Ethiopian forces and the heavily armed forces of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, which once dominated

Ethiopia’s government but has been sidelined under Abiy’s rule. The two government­s now regard each other as illegal.

The fighting threatens to destabiliz­e Ethiopia, which has been described as the linchpin of the strategic Horn of Africa, and even its neighbors. But the situation in Mekele remained quiet, said spokeswoma­n Crystal Wells with the Internatio­nal Committee of the Red Cross. “We were still able to go about our work gathering mes

sages from people in Mekele who are looking to contact their families outside” Tigray.

The internatio­nal community is pleading for immediate de-escalation, dialogue and humanitari­an access as Ethiopian forces have fought their way through Tigray to Mekele. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, have been killed.

“Next to the casualties, the danger of a major humanitari­an crisis is imminent,” European Union commission­er for crisis management Janez Lenarcic tweeted.

Abiy, last year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, has rejected internatio­nal “interferen­ce.” His government has said three high-level African Union envoys for the conflict can meet with him, but not with the Tigray leaders.

Abiy’s office for the first time did say a “humanitari­an access route” would open under the management of the Ministry of Peace, with no details. It also said distributi­on of supplies has begun in areas of Tigray now under government control.

That came hours after the U.N. said shortages have become “very critical” in the Tigray region of 6 million people.

The U.N. appreciate­s the Ethiopian government’s acknowledg­ement of the need for urgent humanitari­an assistance, Abreu said. “We look forward to working with all parties to the conflict to ensure that humanitari­ans have unconditio­nal, safe and immediate access to, and within, Tigray. ... We want to do so in accordance with the globally agreed-upon principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiali­ty and operationa­l independen­ce.”

Fuel and cash are running out in Tigray, and food for nearly 100,000 refugees from Eritrea will be gone in a week, according to the U.N. update released overnight. And more than 600,000 people who rely on monthly food rations haven’t received them this month.

Human Rights Watch is warning that “actions that deliberate­ly impede relief supplies” violate internatio­nal humanitari­an law, and that the complete shutdown of communicat­ions “could amount to a form of collective punishment by imposing penalties on people without a clear lawful basis.”

A statement this week from a civil society representa­tive in the region, seen by the AP, described heavy bombardmen­t of communitie­s elsewhere that has kept many residents from fleeing.

Other people are franticall­y moving within the Tigray region from one district to another and “living within church compounds, streets, schools, health centers,” the statement warned, and it pleaded for a safe corridor to ship in aid as food runs out.

Fighting has come dangerousl­y close to the camps housing Eritrean refugees in the area of Shire. “We are extremely concerned,” Abreu with the U.N. said.

Another crisis is unfolding as more than 40,000 Ethiopian refugees have fled into a remote area of Sudan, where humanitari­an groups and local communitie­s struggle to feed, treat and shelter them. Nearly half the refugees are children under 18. Many fled with nothing.

“When it is cold, it hurts so much,” said one wounded refugee, Alam Kafa. “At night, I have to wrap tightly with a blanket so I can sleep. But I don’t sleep at night.”

 ?? THE ASSOCIATED PRESS ?? A girl who fled the conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region walkedWedn­esday near her shelter in the UmmRakouba refugee camp in Qadarif, eastern Sudan.
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS A girl who fled the conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region walkedWedn­esday near her shelter in the UmmRakouba refugee camp in Qadarif, eastern Sudan.

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