By Reuters Staff
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said on Saturday that military operations in the restive region of Tigray are complete and federal troops control the regional capital, a major development in a three-week-old war that has shaken the Horn of Africa.
“I am pleased to share that we have completed and ceased the military operations in the Tigray region,” he said in a tweet. Less than an hour earlier, he said in a statement, “The federal government is now fully in control of the city of Mekelle”.
However the leader of Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) forces, who have been fighting Ethiopian troops since November 4, said the TPLF was not giving up.
“Their brutality can only add (to) our resolve to fight these invaders to the last,” TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael said in a message.
Asked by Reuters in a text message if that meant his forces will continue fighting, he replied: “Certainly. This is about defending our right to self determination.”
There was no immediate response to this from the government.
In his statement, Abiy said police would continue searching for and detaining TPLF leaders.
“Federal police will now continue their task of apprehending TPLF criminals and bring them to the court of law,” said the prime minister, who has called the government offensive a law and order operation.
It was not clear if any of the TPLF leaders had surrendered. Debretsion said in a text message to Reuters that their forces were withdrawing from around Mekelle.
Claims from all sides are difficult to verify since phone and internet links to the region have been down and access tightly controlled since the fighting began.
Thousands of people are believed to have died during the fighting this month, and nearly 44,000 refugees have fled to neighbouring Sudan. Tigray also borders the nation of Eritrea and the conflict has stirred concern about an escalation around the country of 115 million people, or in the region.
Authorities had said earlier on Saturday that government forces were in the final stages of an offensive in the region and would take care to protect civilians in Mekelle, a city of 500,000 people.
Abiy said the army had secured the release of thousands of troops from the Northern Command, a military unit based in Tigray, who he said had been held hostage by the TPLF.
Federal troops had taken control of “the airport, public institutions, the regional administration office and other critical facilities,” Abiy said.
The government had given the TPLF an ultimatum that expired on Wednesday to lay down arms or face an assault on the city.
Regional diplomats and experts have said the rapid military victory the government has sought may not signal the end of the conflict.
Two diplomats told Reuters it was likely that Tigrayan forces had withdrawn from Mekelle before the government’s push into the city, raising the prospect of a protracted guerrilla war.