Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed again ruled out dialogue with the leaders of the defiant Tigray region Friday, but said he was willing to speak to representatives “operating legally” there during a meeting with African Union special envoys trying to end the deadly conflict between federal troops and the region’s forces.
The meeting came as the Ethiopian News Agency reported the military’s capture of several key towns around the Tigray capital, Mekelle, as more people fled the city ahead of a promised “final phase” of the offensive.
The conflict has threatened to spill over to Ethiopia’s neighboring countries, with an exodus of civilians crossing the border into Sudan to flee the fighting.
On Friday night, at least one rocket fired from Tigray region targeted neighboring Eritrea in the second such attack since the conflict broke out, according to regional diplomats.
“There was one rocket coming from Tigray that seems to have landed south of [the Eritrean capital] Asmara, “a diplomat told AFP, noting there was no immediate information available on casualties or damages.
A second diplomat said there were reports of another rocket striking a neighborhood in Asmara, but this remained unconfirmed.
Ethiopian forces capture Tigrayan town
The Ethiopian military on Friday said it had seized control of the town of Wikro, 50km (30 miles) north of Mekelle a day after the government said it was beginning the “final phase” of an offensive in the northern region.
Federal forces have captured Wikro “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 added.
Claims by all sides in the three-week-old conflict between government and Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) forces however have been impossible to verify because phone and internet connections to the region are down and access to the area is tightly controlled.
On Sunday, the government gave the TPLF until Wednesday 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.
Abiy accuses Tigrayan leaders of starting the war by attacking federal troops at a base in Tigray on November 4. The TPLF says the attack was a pre-emptive strike.
Abiy meets AU envoys
The Ethiopian prime minister received at his office in Addis Ababa on Friday three African ex-leaders – Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia and Kgalema Motlanthe of South Africa – dispatched this week by the AU as mediators.
In a statement issued after their meeting, Abiy said he appreciated “this gesture and … the steadfast commitment this demonstrates to the principle of African solutions to African problems”.
Even so, the government has a “constitutionally mandated responsibility to enforce rule of law in the region and across the country”, he said.
Many attempts, he added, had been made to negotiate with the TPLF before military action was ordered on November 4.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and REUTERS)