June 30 (Reuters)
The Ethiopian army could re-enter the seized Tigray regional capital of Mekelle within weeks if needed, a spokesman for a government task force said on Wednesday, adding that government-allied Eritrean forces had withdrawn from the region.
It was the first public statement by a federal government official since Mekelle was taken by Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) forces this week in a major turn of events after eight months of conflict in which thousands of people have been killed. read more
People in Mekelle, where communications were down on Wednesday, said on Monday incoming Tigrayan fighters had been greeted with cheers. There were similar scenes in the northern town of Shire on Wednesday, where Eritrean forces had pulled out and Tigrayan forces had entered, residents said.
People were celebrating in the streets of Shire as they welcomed the Tigrayan forces, a resident who witnessed the celebrations told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
There have been repeated international calls for an end to the fighting, which has been punctuated by reports of brutal gang-rapes and mass killings of civilians. At least 12 aid workers have been killed.
At least 350,000 people are facing famine and 5 million others need immediate food aid, the United Nations has said – the worst global food crisis in a decade.
“If it is required, we can easily enter to Mekelle and we can enter in less than three weeks,” Redwan Hussein, spokesman for the Ethiopian government’s task force for Tigray, told reporters.
The Eritreans, who joined the government side after they said that the TPLF had attacked their bases across Tigray, had withdrawn from the region, he said.
Eritrea’s information minister did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Eritrea fought a brutal 1998-2000 war with Ethiopia, when the TPLF dominated Ethiopia’s central government, and it regards the TPLF as a mortal foe.
‘RESPONSE WILL BE HUGE’
The Ethiopian army warned Tigray forces against reorganising, saying its response “will be huge”.
“To those who said they might reorganise, they won’t pass an inch,” Lieutenant General Bacha Debele said. “If they try to provoke, our response will be huge and it will be more than the previous one.”
Getachew Reda, spokesman for the TPLF, told Reuters on Tuesday Tigrayan forces were “100% in control of Mekelle”.
On Monday, as reports emerged of the TPLF reaching downtown Mekelle, the federal government issued a statement declaring a unilateral ceasefire with immediate effect. read more
On Tuesday, Getachew dismissed the ceasefire as a “joke”.
“…They are not offering any ceasefire because there is no ceasefire, but we will continue to take measures against all enemies in (the Ethiopian region of) Amhara and Eritrea and we will force them out of our territory,” he told Reuters.
Redwan described the ceasefire as a political decision “made for humanitarian cause”.
The TPLF, an ethnically based political party that dominated Ethiopia’s national politics for nearly three decades, has been battling the central government since early November. It made major territorial gains in the past week.
U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres said on Monday he hoped a political solution would be possible. The United States said atrocities should end immediately and warned Ethiopia and Eritrea that Washington would be watching closely.
“We will not stand by in the face of the horrors in Tigray,” said Robert Godec, acting assistant secretary of state for the State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs.
Reporting by Dawit Endeshaw; Additonal reporting by Maggie Fick in Nairobi; Writing by Nick Macfie and Alexandra Zavis; Editing by Andrew Heavens