Ethiopia crisis: Prime minister orders final assault against Tigray’s capital

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After three weeks of fighting Mr Abiy green lit the offensive on the regional capital of Mekelle, which is home to 500,000 people.

World | The Independent

Ethiopia’s prime minister Abiy Ahmed said the military will begin the “final phase” of its offensive in northern Tigray, just hours after an ultimatum for forces in the region to surrender expired.

After three weeks of fighting Mr Abiy green lit the offensive on the regional capital of Mekelle, which is home to 500,000 people.

It comes as government gave the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) 72 hours on Sunday to lay down their arms.

“The last peaceful gate which had remained open for the TPLF clique to walk through has now been firmly closed as a result of the TPLF’s contempt for the people of Ethiopia,” Mr Abiy said in a statement.

He added that civilians would be spared and that thousands of fighters had already surrendered. 

The TPLF, who control the regional capital, has denied its fighters are surrendering.

Rights groups raised concerns for civilians caught up in military operations in which hundreds are thought to have been killed and thousands forced from their homes since fighting began on November 4.

Mr Abiy, who won the Nobel peace prize last year for ending a long-running stand-off with Eritrea, called on the people of Mekelle to "disarm, stay at home and stay away from military targets".

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"Our National Defence Forces have carefully devised a strategy to bring the TPLF criminal clique to justice without harming innocent civilians, heritage sites, places of worship, development institutions and property," he added.

The conflict pits Ethiopia's federal government against the TPLF, which dominated the country until Abiy took power two years ago. Tigrayans make up about 6 percent of Ethiopia's population.

Mr Abiy accuses Tigrayan leaders of starting hostilities by attacking federal troops. The rebels say his government has marginalised Tigrayans.

African envoys went to Ethiopia to plead for peace on Wednesday, hours before the ultimatum was to expire.

Thousands of people are already believed to have died and there has been widespread destruction from aerial bombardment and ground fighting since the war began early in November.

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Nearly 43,000 refugees have fled over the border to Sudan. TPLF rockets have hit the capital of neighbouring Eritrea.

Daniel Bekele, head of the state-appointed Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, said "extreme caution to avoid civilian harm is of even greater importance, now, at this stage of the conflict".

On Wednesday, Human Rights Watch said both sides must avoid putting civilians in danger. The government's warning did not absolve it of the duty to protect civilians when conducting military operations in the city of Mekelle, the watchdog siad.

"We are also concerned by reports that the TPLF has deployed its forces in heavily populated areas. They need to ensure the safety of civilians under their control," it said.

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