Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has warned civilians in Mekelle to stay indoors as he launched the ''final stage'' of attack on the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, after defying calls for dialogue.
In a message on Thursday morning, Dr Abiy said “thousands” of TPLF fighters had honoured the 72-hour amnesty granted to them, and which ended on Wednesday. He said that opportunity for surrender is now closed and the areas would be attacked.
“The last peaceful gate which had remained open for TPLF clique to walk through has now been firmly closed as a result of TPLF’s contempt for peace of Ethiopia,” he said.
“We call on the people of Mekelle and its environs to disarm, stay at home and stay away from military targets, and take all necessary precautions. We also call on the people of Mekelle to do their part in reducing damages to be sustained because of a handful of criminal TPLF elements, by exposing and handing over the criminal clique to law enforcement agents.”
The warning came even as the TPLF insisted they will not surrender to what they called an illegitimate leader of Ethiopia. Human rights activists, however, warned that a directive to civilians to stay away from harm’s way may be insufficient, given fighters tend to hide among residents or there could be no demarcation to determine where the battles will occur.
“Warnings alone do not absolve the government of the duty to take constant care to protect civilians when carrying out military operations in urban areas that are homes to thousands of people who may not be able to reach more secure areas,” said Laetitia Bader, the Horn of Africa Director for Human Rights Watch.
“We are also concerned that the TPLF has deployed its forces in heavily populated residential areas. They need to ensure the safety of civilians under their control.”
The conflict in the northern Tigray region began three weeks ago after Dr Abiy ordered a military offensive on the TPLF he accuses of impunity and committing injustices in the past.
Already, there have been reported massacres. Amnesty International reported last week that hundreds of civilians, probably labourers, had been killed by machetes just a week after fighting began. This week, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission put the figure at 600 with the Ethiopian government accusing TPLF fighters of the killings.
On Wednesday, Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Director for Eastern and Southern Africa, called on the parties to avoid targeting civilian installations such as hospitals, schools or markets.
Dr Abiy’s final stage will go on despite calls to slow down on the offensive and allow talks.
On Wednesday, he termed the pressure to talk with the TPLF outside interference, saying foreign entities must wait for Ethiopia to formally request for help.
“While we consider the concerns of our friends, we reject any interference in our internal affairs,” Abiy said.
“We, therefore, respectfully urge the international community to refrain from any unwelcome and unlawful acts of interference and respect the fundamental principle of non-intervention.”
The fighting has forced as many as 40,000 refugees into Sudan and nearly 1,000 deaths.