A major battle for control of Ethiopia’s Tigray state capital appears imminent and fears are mounting that numerous civilians who are unable to escape the fighting could be caught in the crossfire. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered an incursion into the dissident northern region three weeks ago, the culmination of months of tension between the federal government and regional authorities. He’s given the state’s ruling Tigray People’s Liberation Front until Wednesday evening to surrender, failing which he’s warned that his forces will attack their stronghold of Mekelle.

The federal government has already staged several air strikes against Mekelle, and military spokesman Colonel Dejene Tsegaye has said tanks will be used to surround and shell the city unless the TPLF capitulates. There are more than 500,000 people in Mekelle, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

In light of the reports of the potential offensive, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is calling on Ethiopian leaders “to do everything possible to protect civilians, uphold human rights and ensure humanitarian access,” his spokesman Stephane Dujarric said in a statement on Tuesday. “He urges all parties to seize this opportunity to de-escalate tensions.”

Mounting a land-based assault on Mekelle will be difficult. It’s situated in a hilly area accessed by steep, windy roads that traverse ravines that drop off hundreds of yards on either side. Abiy has so far resisted calls for international mediation in the civil conflict or to institute a cease-fire.

The international community should stand by until the government of Ethiopia submits its request for assistance,” he said on Twitter on Wednesday. “As a sovereign state, Ethiopia has every right to uphold and enforce its laws within its own territory. And that is exactly what we are doing.” Still, the 55-nation African Union has appointed former presidents Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique,

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia, and Kgalema Motlanthe of South Africa as envoys to mediate in the crisis. The three are en route to Ethiopia for talks with the government, said Ebba Kalondo, a spokeswoman for AU Commission Chairman Moussa Faki.

‘War Crimes’

“I’m deeply concerned about the risk of violence against civilians, including potential war crimes, in the fighting around Mekelle,” Jake Sullivan, U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s pick for national security advisor, said on Twitter.“Civilians must be protected and humanitarian access must be opened. Both sides should immediately begin dialogue facilitated by the AU.”

International concern has been mounting that the turbulence could spill over into other restive regions that have been dogged by protests and violence this year, or into neighboring states. It may also delay plans to open up the economy to foreign investors that were expected to lure tens of billions of dollars in inflows into one of Africa’ fastest growing economies.

The TPLF, once the predominant power in Ethiopia’s ruling coalition, has been progressively sidelined since Abiy took office in 2018. It angered the federal government by staging regional elections in September in defiance of a directive to postpone them and this month Abiy accused it of staging an attack on a military base to steal weapons.

Debretsion Gebremichael, Tigray’s president, has disputed the government’s assertions that it’s seized control of most of the region, and has said his troops are entrenched in defensive positions on all routes leading to Mekelle. He’s given no indication that his forces will comply with the order to surrender.

Food, fuel and cash are running out in Tigray, and there’s a risk that water supplies to tens of thousands of refugees could be cut off because of the inability to power pumps, according to the UN.

Conflict erupted at the Adi Harush refugee camp in the northern Tigray region on Tuesday, and two refugees were killed and four were injured, the UN said. The camp houses about 32,000 Eritrean refugees.


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