Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed today announced that the “Final Phase of the Rule of Law Operations” had begun, marking the official beginning of an armored offensive on the city of Mekelle, the capital of the northern Tigray region.
In a statement uploaded on his Twitter account, the Prime Minister stated that the 72-hour deadline for a peaceful surrender of the “criminal TPLF clique” announced on Sunday had lapsed, beginning the “final stage” of the “law enforcement campaign”.
The statement continued by claiming that “thousands” of Tigray Special Forces and militiamen had surrendered during the 72-hour period, describing the surrenders as a “responsible decision that is expected of citizens”. However, the “last peaceful gate” for TPLF leadership to surrender has been “firmly closed”.
The statement then claims that “great care will be taken to protect civilians from harm”, saying that residents of the city of 500,000 should disarm, remain indoors and away from military targets and “take all necessary precautions”.
The announcement of the offensive follows another statement yesterday by the Prime Minister, which refused attempts by other countries and international bodies to mediate between the Ethiopian government and the TPLF. The statement described international concern of possible war crimes as “well-meaning”, but rejected any “interference” in “internal affairs”, urging other countries to “respect the fundamental principles of non-intervention in international law”.
In a statement on November 24, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet expressed alarm at reports of a heavy build-up of tanks and artillery around Mekelle, saying that “The highly aggressive rhetoric on both sides regarding the fight for Mekelle is dangerously provocative and risks placing already vulnerable and frightened civilians in grave danger” and noting that “The protection of civilians is paramount”.
The Ethiopia State of Emergency Fact Check, a government-run social media account, has since accused the TPLF of attempting a repeat of the massacre in the town of Mai-Kadra, after the government-appointed human rights commission formally accused a Tigrayan youth group of the massacre that took place during the night of November 9, stating that at least 600 civilians had been killed. According to the State of Emergency Fact Check, Tigrayan fighters preparing for another massacre in Mekelle are being disguised as Eritrean military personnel. Their claims have not been able to be verified, and it’s difficult to tell if this is a serious accusation or cover for almost-certain civilian casualties in urban combat.
With Ethiopia’s campaign against the TPLF waged in a near-total media blackout, it has become the least-understood fighting in recent years, with the only accounts being the extremely disturbing accounts shared by refugees who have fled across the border to neighbouring Sudan. Even if “conventional” fighting ends quickly, a protracted TPLF insurgency could make the fears of destabilization of the entire Horn of Africa a reality.