NAIROBI, Kenya — Ethiopia’s prime minister is rejecting growing international consensus for dialogue and a halt to deadly fighting in the Tigray region as “unwelcome,” saying his country will handle the conflict on its own as a 72-hour surrender ultimatum runs out on Wednesday.
The Tigray regional capital, Mekele, remained quiet but tense as sunset approached. But a statement this week from a civil society representative in the region, seen by The Associated Press, described heavy bombardment of communities elsewhere that had kept many residents from fleeing. It pleaded for a safe corridor to ship in aid as food runs out.
However, the international community should “stand by” until Ethiopia’s government asks for assistance, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s office said in a statement as government forces were reportedly positioned well outside Mekele with tanks. “We respectfully urge the international community to refrain from any unwelcome and unlawful acts of interference,” it added.
The government led by Abiy, last year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, has warned Mekele’s half-million residents to move away from the Tigray People’s Liberation Front leaders or there will be “no mercy” — language that the United Nations human rights chief and others have warned could lead to “further violations of international humanitarian law.”
But communications remain almost completely severed to the Tigray region of some 6 million people, and is not clear how many people in Mekele are aware of the warnings and the threat of artillery fire.
“Warnings alone do not absolve the government of its duty to take constant care to protect civilians when carrying out military operations in urban areas that are home to thousands of people who may not be able to reach more secure areas,” Human Rights Watch’s Horn of Africa director Laetitia Bader said in a statement.
Diplomats said U.N. Security Council members in a closed-door meeting Tuesday expressed support for an African Union-led effort to deploy three high-level envoys to Ethiopia. But Ethiopia has said the envoys cannot meet with the TPLF leaders.
“This conflict is already seriously destabilizing the region,” European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said Tuesday after meeting with Ethiopia’s foreign minister.
“Both sides should immediately begin dialogue facilitated by the AU,” the national security adviser for U.S. president-elect Joe Biden, Jake Sullivan, tweeted.
The Tigray regional leader, Debretsion Gebremichael, could not immediately be reached.
The TPLF dominated Ethiopia’s government for more than a quarter-century, but was sidelined after Abiy took office in 2018 and sought to centralize power. The TPLF opted out when Abiy dissolved the ruling coalition, then infuriated the federal government by holding an election in September after national elections were postponed by COVID-19. Each side now regards the other as illegal.
One Ethiopian military official claimed that more than 10,000 “junta forces” have been “destroyed” since the fighting began on Nov. 4, when Abiy accused the TPLF of attacking a military base. Col. Abate Nigatu told the Amhara Mass Media Agency that more than 15,000 heavy weapons and small arms had been seized.
The international community has urgently called for communications to be restored to the Tigray region so such claims can be investigated, and for immediate humanitarian access. The U.N. says it has been unable to send supplies into Tigray and that people there are “terrified.”
Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people have been killed in three weeks of fighting. More than 40,000 refugees have fled into Sudan. And nearly 100,000 Eritrean refugees at camps in northern Tigray have come close to the line of fire.
Misery continues for the refugees in Sudan, with little food, little medicine, little shelter, little funding and little or no contact with loved ones left behind in Tigray. “We are absolutely not ready,” said Suleiman Ali Mousa, the governor of Qadarif province.
“Help us so that we don’t die,” said one refugee, Terhas Adiso. “We came from war. We were scared we were going to die from the war and we came here, we don’t want to die of hunger, disease. If they are going to help us they need to help us quickly. That’s all I am going to say.”
Meanwhile, reports continued of alleged targeting of ethnic Tigrayans, even outside Ethiopia. Three soldiers serving with the U.N. peacekeeping force in South Sudan were ordered home over the weekend, the force said in a statement. The AP has confirmed the repatriated soldiers are Tigrayan.
“If personnel are discriminated against because of their ethnicity or any other reason, this could involve a human rights violation under international law,” the statement said.
Abiy’s government has said it aims to protect civilians, including Tigrayans, but reports continue of arrests, discrimination, house-to-house searches and frozen bank accounts.
Fay Abuelgasim in Umm Rakouba contributed.