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Ethiopian forces march on Tigrayan capital

Ethiopia’s prime minister has said that his army is advancing on the capital of the northern region of Tigray where soldiers from the region are fighting the central government.

The government accused Tigray’s forces of destroying bridges near the city of Mekelle to halt the advance.

Hundreds of people have reportedly died in nearly two weeks of clashes.

Verifying information from Tigray is hard due to a blackout on most communications.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed suggested on Tuesday that the fighting was coming to an end, saying “the final critical act of law enforcement will be done in the coming days.”

The conflict is rooted in long-standing tension between powerful Tigrayan party the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and Ethiopia’s central government.

When Mr Abiy postponed a national election due to coronavirus in June, tension escalated between the two groups. The TPLF sees the central government as illegitimate, arguing Mr Abiy no longer has a mandate to lead the country.

The government accused the TLPF of attacking a military base to steal weapons, which the TPLF denied. In response, Mr Abiy ordered a military offensive, accusing the TPLF of treason.

A three-day deadline given by Prime Minister Abiy to Tigray’s forces to surrender expired on Tuesday.

As government forces advanced on Mekelle, Mr Abiy’s officials said that Tigrayan soldiers responded by destroying four bridges and a section of a road between the city and towns of Shire and Axum.

The TPLF have not commented on the accusations.

At least 27,000 people have fled over the northern border to Sudan as the UN warned a “full-scale humanitarian crisis” is unfolding.

TPLF adviser Fesseha Tessema, a former Ethiopian diplomat, told the BBC that civilian sites in Mekelle were being bombed by federal forces.

“[The people of Tigray] haven’t done anything wrong, they are in their own homes, churches,” Mr Fesseha said.

The federal government has denied targeting civilians and said that air attacks are aimed at the Tigrayan military.

Mr Abiy suggested that a number of TLPF fighters had switched sides to the government but he did not say how many.

He added that his government was “ready to receive and reintegrate our fellow Ethiopians fleeing to neighbouring countries”.

How bad is the humanitarian crisis?
The UN’s refugee agency, the UNHCR, has said that thousands of people have been fleeing the fighting.

The agency was “on stand-by to provide assistance in Tigray when access and security allow” spokesman Babar Baloch said.

“There may be massive displacement inside Tigray and that is of course a concern and we try to prepare the best way possible,” Jens Laerke, spokesman of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said.

The UN fears the numbers fleeing Ethiopia may be just a fraction of those forced from their homes by the fighting, but for the moment aid agencies have no access to the Tigray region.

Regional powers Kenya and Uganda have called for negotiations to find a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

The Ethiopian government has, however, ruled out talks with the TPLF.

Mr Abiy has accused forces loyal to Tigray’s leaders of carrying out the mass killings. The TPLF has denied involvement, saying it will welcome an independent international investigation.

Ethiopia’s human rights commission said it would send a team to investigate.

Why are the government and TPLF fighting?
The TPLF dominated Ethiopia’s military and political life for decades before Mr Abiy took office in 2018 and pushed through major reforms.

Last year, Mr Abiy dissolved the ruling coalition, made up of several ethnically based regional parties, and merged them into a single, national party, which the TPLF refused to join.

The feud escalated in September, when Tigray held a regional election, defying a nationwide ban on all polls imposed because of the coronavirus pandemic. Mr Abiy responded by calling the vote illegal.

Tigray’s administration sees Mr Abiy’s reforms as an attempt to hand his central government more power and weaken regional states.

It also resents what it calls the prime minister’s “unprincipled” friendship with Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki.

Mr Abiy won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for his efforts to bring peace with Eritrea.

The prime minister believes TPLF officials are undermining his authority.

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