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ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) – Ethiopia’s military has defeated local forces in the west of Tigray state, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said on Thursday, accusing his foes of atrocities during a week of fighting that threatens to destabilise the Horn of Africa.
Air strikes and ground combat have killed hundreds, sent refugees flooding into Sudan, stirred Ethiopia’s ethnic divisions and raised questions over the credentials of Abiy, Africa’s youngest leader who won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2019.
“The western region of Tigray has been liberated,” tweeted Abiy, 44, who comes from the largest ethnic group the Oromo and once fought with the Tigrayans against neighbouring Eritrea.
“In those liberated areas, the army is now providing humanitarian assistance and services. It is also feeding the people,” he added.
With communications down, transport blocked and media barred, independent verification of the status of the conflict was impossible. There was no immediate response from the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which rules the mountainous northern state of more than 5 million people.
Abiy accuses the TPLF of starting the conflict by attacking a federal military base and defying his authority, while the Tigrayans say his two-year rule has persecuted them.
Abiy said some of his soldiers had been found dead in the town of Sheraro, shot with their legs and arms tied behind their back. “This kind of cruelty is heartbreaking and the goal is to destroy Ethiopia,” he said.
Abiy did not say how many bodies were found or provide proof in his Twitter comments in the local Amharic language.
Reuters could not verify his allegation and there was no immediate response from the TPLF, which has also accused federal troops of being “merciless” in bombing Tigrayans.
HUMANITARIAN EMERGENCY LOOMS
More than 10,000 Ethiopian refugees have crossed into Sudan since fighting started and aid agencies say the situation in Tigray appears to be becoming dire. Even before the conflict, 600,000 people there were reliant on food aid.
The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said aid agencies were unable to restock food, health and other emergency supplies in Tigray due to lack of access.
“Shortages of basic commodities are reportedly appearing, impacting the most vulnerable first and the most,” it said.
The United Nations’ refugee agency’s representative in Ethiopia, Ann Encontre, told Reuters negotiations were underway with both sides for humanitarian corridors to be opened.
A “major emergency” may be brewing with so many people escaping to Sudan, she warned.
Abiy has so far resisted calls by the United Nations, the African Union and others for a ceasefire and talks.
His army chief of staff Birhanu Jula was quoted by state-affiliated Fana broadcaster as saying that the federal troops’ Northern Command had resisted a five-day siege and was now recapturing many places including Dansha, Humera airport and Baeker.
“I would like to thank these members of the army for being a model of our heroic defence force and their persistent battle, though deprived of food and water for four or five days,” he said, accusing the TPLF of using people as a human shield.
There was no immediate response to that accusation.
Ethiopia’s parliament stripped 39 members, including the Tigray regional president Debretsion Gebremichael, of immunity from prosecution, the state news agency reported.
The government’s newly-formed State of Emergency task force for Tigray said about 150 “criminal” operatives for the TPLF had been arrested in the capital Addis Ababa and elsewhere on suspicion of planning “terror attacks”.
Amhara regional state, which neighbours Tigray and has been backing Abiy, called off planned demonstrations against the Tigrayan ruling party. “The protest is not timely due to current security concerns,” said the state’s communication office.
Sidama region was, however, going ahead with an anti-TPLF protest, Fana TV said, in what appeared to be a government-backed attempt to win the propaganda war over Tigray.