Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said Saturday that the army had entered Mekele, the capital of the Tigray region, in an offensive against the region's dissident leaders, state television reported.
"We've been able to enter Mekele city without innocent civilians being targets," Abiy was quoted as saying by Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation (EBC).
He later posted a statement on Twitter saying that "the Federal government is in full control of the city of Mekele," and that the army would now locate Tigray's leaders and arrest them.
"We now have ahead of us the critical task of rebuilding what has been destroyed...with the utmost priority of returning normalcy to the people of the Tigray region,'' Abiy added.
He said police were searching for the leaders of the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF). However, the leader of the rebellious Tigrayan forces told Reuters in a text message that they will continue fighting the Ethiopian government.
"Their brutality can only add [to] our resolve to fight these invaders to the last," said Debretsion Gebremichael in a message.
Asked by Reuters in a text message if that meant his forces will continue fighting, he replied: "Certainly. This is about defending our right to self-determination."
Final push took just hours
Mekele came under heavy bombardment by Ethiopian forces earlier on Saturday, the TPLF had admitted.
In a statement carried by Tigrayan media, the local government reported attacks with "heavy weaponry and artillery in the center of Mekele."
Two humanitarian officials in the city confirmed these reports, according to Agence France-Presse news agency.
Citing a diplomat in direct contact with residents, Reuters reported explosions in the north of the city, in the Hamidai area. A second diplomat confirmed the attack.
The TPLF officials had earlier called "upon all who have a clear conscience, including the international community, to condemn the artillery and warplane attacks and massacres being committed."
Last Sunday, the Ethiopian government gave the TPLF an ultimatum — which expired on Wednesday — to lay down arms or face an assault on Mekele, a city of 500,000 people.
Communications in Tigray have been down for weeks, making it hard to verify reports from the ground, but it is believed that hundreds, possibly thousands have already lost their lives in the fighting.
On Friday, Ethiopian defense officials sent a letter to foreign embassies in Addis Ababa, threatening their defense attaches with expulsion if they were working with enemies of the state.
"Some military attaches are working with those who endangered the security of the country, identified on blacklists and sought by an attorney of the court," the letter said.
The Tigray region has been facing a rebellion for more than three weeks. On November 4, security forces loyal to the TPLF attacked the Northern Command of the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) in Mekele, killing several people.
Read more: Ethiopia: A timeline of the Tigray crisis
While the TPLF claimed the strike was carried out in "self-defense," Abiy said the TPLF had "crossed a red line" and ordered a military offensive.
The TPLF is popular in the Tigray region and dominated national politics until Abiy took power two years ago.
Since the violence began, some 43,000 refugees have fled to Sudan. The conflict has also spread beyond Tigray, whose forces have fired rockets at the neighboring Amhara region and Eritrea.
Six explosions were heard in the Eritrean capital Asmara on Saturday night, according to the US embassy in the African country. On Friday, the embassy reported another "loud noise, possibly an explosion" in the city.
On Saturday, TPLF leader Debretsion accused the Eritrean military of crossing its border and raiding refugee camps in Tigray to capture refugees who have fled Eritrea in the past.
Read more: Ethiopia: 'People in Tigray are terrified'
UN cut off from helping civilians
The African Union has designated a special envoy to mediate between the government and the TPLF, which is also the region's ruling political party.
Abiy, who won last year's Nobel Peace Prize for a peace deal with neighboring Eritrea, has said he wants to remove the TPLF leaders before negotiations. He has also appointed an alternative interim government to run Tigray.
UN head Antonio Guterres has called for establishing humanitarian to help civilians caught up in the fighting. Filippo Grandi, the head of the UN refugee agency, said Saturday that access to the region was still "the main obstacle" and urged the central government to "grant us corridors or whatever they call it to provide assistance."
shs, dj/mm (Reuters, AFP)