Forces loyal to the former ruling party in the rebel Tigray region of Ethiopia have entered the regional capital Mekelle, giving the hardest blow to the government in Addis Ababa since a new conflict began in November.
“We have retaken Mekelle,” said a member of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, eight months after the start of a civil war that has likely killed thousands, displaced millions and sparked fears of famine.
A Mekelle resident said “everyone is very happy that the fighters are controlling the city,” with people waving red and yellow Tigrayan flags. But they added that within a radius of about 25km around the city “there is always war”.
Calls to officials of the interim administration in Tigray, which has been appointed by Addis Ababa, went unanswered, but eyewitnesses and reports said they had fled the Tigrayan capital.
Billene Seyoum, the spokeswoman for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, did not comment on the Tigrayan troops taking Mekelle.
But he confirmed that the Ethiopian government on Monday declared “an unconditional ceasefire.” International organizations have sounded the alarm that there are hundreds of thousands living in conditions similar to the famine.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres said Monday evening after speaking to Abiy that he hoped “an effective cessation of hostilities will take place in Tigray”.
In recent weeks, diplomatic and humanitarian sources have said that forces loyal to the TPLF had recaptured lost territory for Ethiopian federal forces.
Getachew Reda, a former member of the TPLF, said Sunday that “our forces are making more and more gains,” but their claims cannot be verified. On Monday, he told Reuters via a satellite phone that Mekelle “is under our control.”
Fighting began in the northernmost region of Tigray’s Ethiopia in early November after Abiy sent troops to drive out the TPLF.
Government officials claim he was unable to even invade Tigray after troops loyal to the TPLF attacked the northern command of the federal army. Abiy had promised that the operation would quickly restore law and order, but the conflict became a lasting one. war which raised suspicion massacres, fueling a humanitarian crisis.
He also attracted troops from neighboring Eritrea, whose capital Asmara has been hit by rebel forces and whose strong leader Isaias Afwerki detests the TPLF. The conflict has horrified an international community that in 2019 awarded Abiy the Nobel Peace Prize.
The government in Addis Ababa had branded the TPLF, along with the ruling party in Tigray, a “criminal clique”. As the leading member of the four-party coalition that led Ethiopia for nearly three decades until 2018, when Abiy took office, the TPLF had played a decisive role in national politics.
The Tigraians have a long history of fighting against Addis Ababa. They did so in the 1940s against Emperor Haile Selassie in the so-called Woyane Rebellion. Forty years later, they waged a successful guerrilla war against the Marxist Derg regime, which came to power in 1991 after marching on Addis Ababa.
The unilateral declaration of a ceasefire followed several important military gains by fighters loyal to the TPLF, the Eurasian risk council said on Monday in a note, adding that Tigrayan fighters were “likely to reach a temporary deal since it provides at the same time the opportunity to consolidate the wave of local support and strengthen its position in Mekelle and around it ”.
He warned, however, that “even if this opens the door to dialogue towards a more comprehensive agreement on the conflict, discussions are likely to be difficult and protracted.”