Ethiopian federal forces surrounded the Tigray region’s capital from about 50 kilometers (31 miles) on Monday, the government said, after giving the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) a 72-hour ultimatum to give up.
“The beginning of the end is within reach,” said government spokesman Redwan Hussein of the nearly three-week offensive that has destabilized both Ethiopia and the wider Horn of Africa.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has told the TPLF, which had ruled the mountainous northern zone with 5 million people, to lay down arms by Wednesday or face a final attack on Mekele.
TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael told Reuters that the threat was a cover for government forces to regroup after what he described as a three-front defeat.
Hundreds, possibly thousands, have been killed in the fighting and airstrikes that erupted on November 4, sending some 40,000 refugees to neighboring Sudan. The conflict has spread beyond Tigray, with the TPLF firing rockets into both the neighboring Amhara region and across the border into Eritrea.
Tigrayan forces fired rockets on Monday at Bahir Dar, the capital of the neighboring Amhara region, whose authorities support the federal offensive, he said.
TPLF troops had also destroyed the airport at the ancient city of Axum, a popular tourist attraction and UNESCO World Heritage Site located northwest of Mekele. Axum’s history and ruins, including obelisks from the fourth century when the Axumite Empire was at its height, give Ethiopia its claim to being one of the world’s oldest Christianities.
The TPLF accuses Abiy, a former military ally and government partner, of marginalizing his ethnic group since he became prime minister two years ago. He has removed Tigray officials from influential roles in government and the military and detained some due to abuse of rights and corruption charges. Abiy, whose parents come from the larger Oromo and Amhara groups, denies all ethnic undertones and says he legitimately persecutes criminals and preserves national unity.