Ethiopia’s prime minister said Thursday that the army was ordered to move to the besieged regional capital of Tigray after it finished its 72-hour ultimatum for Tigray’s leaders to surrender, and warned half a million residents of the city to stay home and disarm.
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 weapons can get close to Mekele, whose residents were warned “to show no mercy” if they didn’t get away from Tigray’s leaders in time.
That caused international alarm as human rights groups said such wording could violate international law and put civilians in greater danger. “We will take great care to protect civilians,” said Abiy’s statement.
He also claimed that thousands of militiamen and special forces from Tigray surrendered during the 72-hour period.
“What is happening is beyond words, and it is heartbreaking to see a great country collapse,” said a message sent by a Mekele resident on Wednesday and seen by The Associated Press. The message expressed hopelessness at not being able to reach loved ones in other parts of the region, adding: “Ohhhhhhhh GOD!”
Abiy’s office said for the first time on Thursday that a “humanitarian access route” would be opened under the administration of the country’s peace ministry, without details. He also said that distribution of supplies has started in areas of Tigray now under government control.
That came hours after the UN said the shortage has become “very critical” in the Tigray region, as its population of 6 million remains isolated.
It remains difficult to verify claims in the fighting that broke out on November 4 between Ethiopian forces and the heavily armed Tigray People’s Liberation Front, which once dominated the Ethiopian government but has been marginalized under the Abiy government. The two governments are now considered illegal.
Travel blockades are so severe that even within Mekele, the UN World Food Program cannot gain access to transport food from its warehouses there.
A statement this week by a representative of civil society in the region, seen by the AP, described the intense bombardment of communities elsewhere that has prevented many residents from fleeing.
Other people are frantically moving within the Tigray region from district to district and “living within church precincts, streets, schools, health centers,” the statement warned, calling for a safe corridor to send help when run out of food.
Human Rights Watch warns 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 sanctions on people without a clear legal basis. “.
Another crisis is unfolding as more than 40,000 Ethiopian refugees have fled to a remote area of Sudan, where humanitarian groups and local communities struggle to feed, treat and shelter them. Almost half of the refugees are children under the age of 18. Many fled with nothing.
“When it’s cold, it hurts a lot,” said a wounded refugee, Alam Kafa. “At night, I have to wrap myself tightly with a blanket to be able to sleep. But I don’t sleep at night.”
“Just imagine for everything, literally for everything, starting with the food, ending with the water you drink, ending with just going to the bathroom and washing your hands, for everything that depends on someone else,” Javanshir Hajiyev said with the group of help. Mercy Corps.
“This is really a very serious situation. I cannot emphasize how difficult it is.”
– Reported with Associated Press