Ethiopia's military has defeated local forces in the west of Tigray state, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said on Thursday, accusing his foes of atrocities during a week of fighting that threatens to destabilise the Horn of Africa.
Air strikes and ground combat have killed hundreds, sent refugees flooding into Sudan, stirred Ethiopia's ethnic divisions and raised questions over the credentials of Abiy, Africa's youngest leader who won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2019.
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There are fears the conflict may suck in Eritrea, whose government signed a peace pact with Abiy two years ago but remains hostile to the Tigrayan leadership, and weaken Ethiopia's role in an African Union (AU) force opposing Islamist militants in Somalia.
Major conflict could also hinder foreign investment in Ethiopia's economy which had clocked nearly double-digit annual growth for years before the coronavirus hit and is liberalizing, with multinationals particularly eyeing the telecoms sector.
"The western region of Tigray has been liberated," tweeted Abiy, 44, who comes from the largest ethnic group the Oromo and once fought with the Tigrayans against neighbouring Eritrea.
With communications down and media barred, independent verification of the status of the conflict was impossible.
The Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), which rules the mountainous northern state of more than five million people, announced a state of emergency against what it termed an "invasion."
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Abiy accuses the TPLF of starting the conflict by attacking a federal military base and defying his authority, while the Tigrayans say his two-year-old rule has persecuted them.
The premier said some of his soldiers had been found dead in the town of Sheraro, shot with their legs and arms tied behind their back. "This kind of cruelty is heartbreaking," he said.
He did not say how many bodies were found or provide proof. Reuters could not verify his allegation and there was no immediate response from the TPLF, which has accused federal troops of being "merciless" in bombing Tigrayans.
More than 11,000 Ethiopian refugees have crossed into Sudan since fighting started, and about 50% of them are children, a UN refugee agency official said on Thursday.
Aid agencies say the situation in Tigray is becoming dire. Even before the conflict, 600,000 people there were reliant on food aid.
UNHCR representative Axel Bisschop said in a virtual briefing that the agency had built a response plan for about 20,000 people, and has a further contingency for up to 100,000 people. He added, "They are coming with very, very little possessions and while most of them have actually come in in a healthy condition, we have had information on some who have been injured."
The rights group Amnesty International said on Thursday that scores and probably hundreds of people were stabbed or hacked to death in an area of Ethiopia's Tigray region two days ago.
"We have confirmed the massacre of a very large number of civilians, who appear to have been day labourers in no way involved in the ongoing military offensive," Amnesty said, referring to federal troops' push against local forces. There was no immediate response from the Ethiopian government or Tigray's local leaders.
Arrests and protests
The U.N. refugee agency's representative in Ethiopia, Ann Encontre, told Reuters negotiations were under way with both sides for humanitarian corridors.
A "major emergency" may be brewing with so many people escaping to Sudan, she warned. Half of the refugees were children and some were wounded.
About two dozen vehicles of non-essential U.N. and other workers were pulling out of Tigray in convoy.
After taking office in 2018, Abiy was applauded for opening up a repressive political system, including freeing activists from jail and lifting bans on opposition political parties. He won his Nobel prize for the peace accord with Eritrea.
But his democratic transition was already waning even before the push on Tigray, experts say, including jailing a prominent opposition member and restricting media.
Abiy has so far resisted calls by the United Nations, the African Union and others for a ceasefire and talks.
His army chief of staff Birhanu Jula said the federal troops' Northern Command had survived a five-day siege and was recapturing places including Dansha, Humera airport and Baeker.
"I would like to thank these members of the army for being a model of our heroic defense force and their persistent battle, though deprived of food and water for four or five days," he said, accusing the TPLF of using people as a human shield.
There was no immediate response to that accusation.
The army said transitional rule would be set up in parts of Tigray and urged local forces to surrender.
Some Tigrayans may have defected from the federal army so as not to fight their own people, an internal U.N. report said.
In a wider push against the TPLF, Ethiopia's parliament stripped 39 members, including Tigray regional president Debretsion Gebremichael, of immunity from prosecution.
Police said they had arrested 242 TPLF activists suspected of plotting attacks in Addis Ababa. Weapons including bombs and bullets were also confiscated, the city's police chief said.
Also in the capital, volunteers lined up at a stadium to donate blood for injured armed forces members. Some waved the Ethiopian national flag.
And in what seemed to be a government-backed attempt to win the propaganda war over Tigray, thousands marched in anti-TPLF protests in the Oromia, Somali and Afar regions, Fana reported.