Ethiopia said on Saturday its forces had seized another town in their advance on the capital of northern Tigray region and rebuffed an African Union (AU) push to mediate in the war with rebel forces in the region.
More than two weeks into Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s offensive, his government said Tigrayan forces were digging in and using bulldozers to plough up roads around their capital Mekelle, home to about half a million people.
Hundreds, possibly thousands, have died and more than 30,000 refugees have fled to Sudan. The conflict has spread beyond Tigray, whose forces have fired rockets at the neighbouring Amhara region and the nation of Eritrea, spurring concern of a wider war.
Abiy’s government has said it will soon reach Mekelle after taking various surrounding towns. On Saturday it said Adigrat had also fallen, about 116 km (72 miles) north of Mekelle.
There was no immediate response from the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) rebels who have promised “hell” for the advancing federal troops. The TPLF had said on Friday its forces were making progress on the southern and northern fronts.
Assertions on all sides are hard to verify because phone lines and internet have been down since the beginning of the conflict on Nov. 4 and media are largely barred.
The African Union has appointed former presidents Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia and Kgalema Motlantheof South Africa as special envoys to seek a ceasefire and mediation talks.
Abiy, who won the Nobel Peace Prize last year for a peace pact with neighbouring Eritrea, has said he wants to remove the TPLF leaders before talking.
He accuses them of revolting against central authority and attacking federal troops in the town of Dansha. The rebel leaders say Abiy’s government has marginalised and persecuted Tigrayans since taking office two years ago.
Abiy denies that, saying he is seeking only to restore law and order and preserve the unity of Ethiopia and its 115 million people.
“News circulating that the envoys will be travelling to Ethiopia to mediate between the Federal Government and TPLF’s criminal element is fake,” the government tweeted on Saturday.
The United Nations and other aid agencies have spoken of catastrophe in Tigray, where many among the more than 5 million population were already displaced and relying on food aid even before the conflict.
Refugees have given accounts of widespread destruction in aerial bombardment and ground fighting.
Satellite images given to Reuters by U.S.-based space company Maxar Technologies showed destroyed buildings lining the main road near the airport in Dansha, where the conflict broke out.
The government has appointed an alternative interim government to run Tigray. Its new head hinted this week at potential forgiveness for TPLF rank-and-file, while the party itself is now outlawed.
The TPLF is popular in its home region and dominated national politics from 1991 until Abiy took office. Abiy’s parents are from the larger Oromo and Amhara ethnic groups.