Ethiopia said on Tuesday its forces had seized three towns in war-stricken Tigray in an advance that coincides with UN warnings of a spiralling conflict and an “utterly staggering” toll on civilians.
International calls for a halt to the escalating violence in Tigray have been mounting since a failed attempt by the African Union earlier this month to bring the warring sides to the negotiating table and find a peaceful solution to the near two-year conflict.
“The ENDF (Ethiopian National Defence Force) has taken control of the towns of Shire, Alamata and Korem without fighting in urban areas,” the government said in a statement, adding that it would work with humanitarian agencies to provide aid to the areas now under army control.
The announcement was issued by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government after the rebel Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) said the strategic city of Shire and other areas had fallen to “invading forces”.
Troops from Ethiopia and neighbouring Eritrea had been waging an offensive near Shire for several days, with international alarm over the human cost of the renewed combat in Tigray.
Shire, home to about 100,000 people before the conflict, lies around 300 kilometres (180 miles) by road northwest of Tigray’s capital Mekele and about 50 kilometres from the border with Eritrea.
The Tigrayan statement said artillery strikes by the rival forces in areas they reached had killed or injured many civilians, and sent hundreds of thousands fleeing.
It is not possible to verify battlefield claims as Tigray is under a communications blackout and access to northern Ethiopia is restricted for journalists.
‘Alarming levels’ of violence
Fighting resumed between pro-government forces and the TPLF in late August, with both sides blaming the other for shattering a five-month truce that had allowed limited amounts of aid into Tigray and raised a glimmer of hope for peace.
On Monday, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres warned that the situation was “spiralling out of control”.
“Violence and destruction have reached alarming levels,” he said, calling for the “immediate withdrawal and disengagement” of Eritrean forces.
The European Union, the United States and the AU have also issued urgent appeals for a halt to the fighting, which is threatening the stability of the continent’s second most populous nation and the wider Horn of Africa region.
Washington and Brussels have also voiced particular concern about the presence of troops from Eritrea, whose forces were accused of brutal atrocities during the early phase of the war that first erupted in November 2020.
In two years of war, untold numbers of civilians have been killed, an estimated two million people driven from their homes while millions more are in need of aid, according to UN figures.
Tigray and its six million people are virtually cut off from the outside world, facing dire shortages of fuel, food and medicines and lacking basic services, including communications and electricity.
‘Risk of escalation’
Abiy’s government had said in a statement Monday it was “committed to the peaceful resolution of the conflict through the AU-led peace talks,” without addressing a call by the bloc for a ceasefire.
But it also accused the TPLF of colluding with unnamed “hostile foreign powers” and said it would pursue “defensive measures” to protect Ethiopia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
“It is thus imperative that the Government of Ethiopia assumes immediate control of all airports, other federal facilities, and installations in the region.”
On Tuesday, Abiy’s national security adviser Redwan Hussein insisted on Twitter that the conflict was not “spiralling… Now it’s just being extinguished and degenerating”.
But the UN’s new high commissioner for human rights, Volker Turk, warned of a “significant risk of escalation” as more troops and soldiers were mobilised.
Air and artillery strikes in Tigray since August have inflicted an “utterly staggering” toll on civilians, he said in a statement issued in Geneva.
Among those killed in recent incidents was a staff member of the International Rescue Committee aid group, who was part of a team delivering humanitarian assistance to pregnant women and malnourished children.
“Under international law, indiscriminate attacks or attacks deliberately targeting civilians or civilian objects amount to war crimes,” Turk warned.
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