Ethiopian troops are advancing further into the northern Tigray region, capturing a key city on the way to its capital, Addis Ababa officials said.
The conflict between national forces and troops loyal to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Tigre (TPLF) is heading towards the end of the second week.
There are widespread fears that the war will exacerbate ethnic tensions elsewhere in Africa̵
On Sunday, the cabinet of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said the war in Tigrei was irreversible and aimed at “imposing the rule of law”.
A working group set up by Abiy to deal with the government’s response claims troops have liberated the city of Alamata. “They [the TPLF] escaped, taking about 10,000 prisoners, “the statement said, without specifying where the prisoners came from.
Although officials confidently announced an impending victory, Monday’s announcement that federal troops had reached the Alam did not necessarily reinforce the message that the government offensive was advancing rapidly.
The city of about 50,000 people is located 180 miles from Mekel, the capital and administrative center of Tigrei, and only six miles from the border with the neighboring Amhara region, a starting point for troops.
Government forces are also seeking to move further west, securing the border with Sudan and the strategically important city of Humera.
As communications are largely closed and the media is banned, it remains difficult to independently verify allegations made by all parties.
Abbey launched military operations in Tigrei 12 days ago after accusing local authorities of attacking a military camp and attempting to loot military assets. The TPLF, which is in power in the region, denies the accusation and accuses the prime minister of fabricating the story to justify the offensive.
Since then, air strikes and ground fighting between government forces and the TPLF have killed hundreds of people and sent some 25,000 refugees to Sudanese. The violence has raised international concerns about Abbey, who won the Nobel Peace Prize last year, for risking a protracted civil war against the region’s well-armed forces.
Although only 7 million people live in Tigrei with a total Ethiopian population of 110 million, much of the equipment of government troops is stored in the province and local forces are considered experienced fighters. Military experts say the difficult terrain in the region is ideal for guerrilla warfare.
Debretsion Gebremichael, the leader of the TPLF, called on the United Nations and the African Union to condemn the offensive, accusing federal troops of “waging this war against the people of Tigrei” by attacking civilian infrastructure.
“We are not the initiators of this conflict, and it is obvious that Abi Ahmed was waging this war in an attempt to consolidate his personal power,” he added, adding that Ethiopia could become a failed state or fall apart.
Fears that the conflict could escalate into a wider regional war were heightened over the weekend when TPLF forces fired rockets into Eritrea after accusing the neighboring country of sending tanks and thousands of troops in support of Ethiopian federal troops. which Asmara denies.
There is deep animosity between the leadership of Tigrayan and Isayas Afwerki, who has ruled Eritrea with an iron fist for more than 30 years, but analysts say the main goal of the strike, which caused limited or no damage, was likely to draw international attention that pressure from foreign forces could force Abbey to sit at the negotiating table.
For now, Abiy, 44, has ignored calls for a ceasefire and talks from the UN secretary general, the United States, European powers, the pope and others.
An Ethiopian government spokesman said Monday that mediation would now “only encourage impunity”.
The Ethiopian National Defense Force has about 140,000 personnel and extensive experience in fighting Islamist militants in Somalia and rebel groups in the border regions, plus two years of confrontation on the border with Eritrea.
But many senior officers were Tigrayan, much of his most powerful weapon in the hands of the TPLF, as well as the powerful headquarters of the Northern Command in Mekel.
The TPLF has a gruesome history, leading a rebel march to Addis Ababa, which overthrew the Marxist dictatorship in 1991 and bore the brunt of the 1998-2000 war with Eritrea, which killed hundreds of thousands.
Abi once fought with the Tigers and was a partner in the government with them until 2018, when he took office. He won his Nobel Prize in pursuit of peace with Eritrea, beginning to liberalize the economy and open a repressive political system.
Although his broad political reforms have won widespread praise, they have allowed old ethnic and other grievances to surface.
The TPLF dominated Ethiopia’s ruling coalition for decades before Abiy came to power, and Tigrayan leaders complained that they were being unfairly prosecuted for corruption, removed from high positions and blamed for the country’s problems.
The postponement of the national elections due to heightened tensions over the Covid-19 pandemic and when lawmakers in Addis Ababa voted to extend the term of office of officials, Tigrayan’s leaders continued with the regional elections in September, which the Abi government considered illegal.
Amnesty International has condemned the killing of dozens and possibly hundreds of civilian workers in a massacre blamed on both sides.