Ethiopian forces will take control of the Tigray region’s capital Mekelle in coming days, the military said late on Friday, a day after the Prime Minister announced the “final phase” of an offensive in the region.
Federal forces seized control of Wikro, a town 50 km (30 miles) north of Mekelle and “will control Mekelle in a few days”, Lieutenant-General Hassan Ibrahim said in a statement. Government troops had also taken control of several other towns, he said.
Claims by all sides in the three-week-old conflict between government and TPLF forces have been impossible to verify because phone and internet connections to the region are down and access to the area is tightly controlled.
On Friday evening in the neighbouring country of Eritrea, “a loud noise, possibly an explosion” was heard in the capital Asmara, the U.S. Embassy there said in a statement early on Saturday.
The Ethiopian military has been fighting rebellious local forces in the northern region of Tigray, which borders Eritrea and Sudan.
Thousands of people are believed to have died and there has been widespread destruction from aerial bombardment and ground fighting since the war began. Around 43,000 refugees have fled to Sudan.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed accuses Tigrayan leaders of starting the war by attacking federal troops at a base in Tigray on Nov. 4. The TPLF says the attack was a pre-emptive strike.
The government gave the TPLF an ultimatum last Sunday to lay down arms or face an assault on Mekelle, a city of 500,000 people, raising fears among aid groups of extensive civilian casualties. The ultimatum expired on Wednesday.
Abiy, who announced on Thursday that the military was beginning the “final phase” of its offensive, told African peace envoys on Friday that his government will protect civilians in Tigray.
But a statement issued by the prime minister’s office after their meeting made no mention of talks with the TPLF to end fighting. It also did not mention any plans for further discussions with them.