Ethiopia has said its forces are bearing down on the capital of Tigray region, in a two-week-old war that has killed hundreds and forced 30,000 refugees to flee into neighbouring Sudan.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government says its troops have won a string of victories and will soon reach state capital Mekelle, a highland town of about 500,000 people, where the regional ruling Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) has strong support and a battle-hardened history.
“Our defence forces are moving forward and closing in on Mekelle,” government spokesman Redwan Hussein told reporters.
“There are a number of towns that have fallen.”
The government says the TPLF has turned renegade and is holding power in Tigray illegally. The TPLF says the war is part of an unconstitutional assault on regional rights. Both sides accuse the other of atrocities and blocking humanitarian aid.
The government-appointed head of a newly-named interim administration for Tigray, academic Mulu Nega, said new local elections were planned to restore peace to the region once TPLF leaders were removed.
Ethiopian soldiers were advancing along roads from the south and northwest of Mekelle, a diplomat tracking the conflict told Reuters news agency.
The TPLF leader told Reuters that while it had lost ground in the south and federal soldiers had taken the town of Shire to the west, it still held the town of Axum, about 215 km (134 miles) northwest of Mekelle, implying resistance was fierce.
The TPLF’s information bureau said its forces had eliminated two army divisions and a mechanised force around the town of Alamata, without offering evidence.
In text messages, the leader of Ethiopia’s Tigray rebel forces Debretsion Gebremichael told Reuters that Mekelle was bombed on Thursday, but gave no further details.
The government has previously denied bombing civilian targets
Al Jazeera’s Mohammed Adow, reporting from the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, said the government claims an attack on Mekelle, from multiple fronts, is imminent.
“They say this is going to happen in the coming hour or days,”
Adow added that both sides have made “huge claims of victory” which was “very hard to ascertain given the internet network in the region being down”.
Citing security analysts, Adow said the “battle for Mekelle was not going to be easy because of the terrain and how heavily armed the Tigryan fighters are”.
The war has pitted the central government against one of the most heavily militarised of 10 ethnic states that make up Ethiopia.
Tigrayans from the TPLF held sway in Ethiopia for more than two decades despite making up just 5 percent of the population, as leaders of a multi-ethnic coalition that took power in 1991, until Abiy took power two years ago.
World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on Thursday rejected allegations by Ethiopia that he was backing his native dissident Tigray region in the conflict.
“There have been reports suggesting I am taking sides in this situation. This is not true,” Tedros wrote on Twitter.
“I want to say that I am on only one side and that is the side of peace.”
Ethiopia’s military on Thursday accused Tedros of trying to procure arms and diplomatic backing for the TPLF.
Ethiopian army chief Birhanu Jula called Tedros, who served as a minister in a TPLF-led Ethiopian coalition government for more than a decade before taking the helm of the global health body, “a criminal”.
Birhanu provided no evidence.