People continued to flee the capital of Ethiopia’s embattled Tigray region in fear of an imminent assault after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said the army had been ordered to move in for the “final phase” of an offensive to arrest the defiant regional leaders.
Fighting reportedly remained well outside Mekele, a densely populated city of a half a million people who had been warned by the Ethiopian government of “no mercy” if they did not separate themselves from the Tigray leaders in time.
Mr Abiy on Thursday told residents to stay indoors and disarm as the army, with tanks, was given the order to move in. His government has vowed to protect civilians.
Food and other supplies are running out in the Tigray region of six million people.
The United Nations continues to urge immediate access for humanitarians that is neutral and impartial.
Ethiopia’s government has said a “humanitarian access route” would open under the management of the country’s Ministry of Peace, with no details.
Multiple crises are growing. Refugees from Eritrea have been in the line of fire as fighting sweeps by their camps of nearly 100,000 in the region’s north.
Refugees have also told The Associated Press that Ethiopian forces near the border with Sudan are impeding people from leaving Ethiopia, while refugee crossings have largely slowed to a trickle. Ethiopia’s government has not commented on that.
More than 40,000 refugees have crossed into a remote part of Sudan where local communities and humanitarian workers struggle to provide food, shelter and care.
Nearly half of the refugees are children. The spread of Covid-19 is just one concern.
“We cannot keep social distancing here in the camp,” said Mohammed Rafik Nasri, from the UN refugee agency.
“It is really challenging among the several issues in need that are growing because the number is growing.
Today we are receiving a convoy of 1,000 arriving in the camp. And shelter is one of the biggest challenges that we have at the moment.”
With communications and transport links severed, it remains difficult to verify claims about the fighting that erupted on November 4 between Ethiopian forces and the heavily armed forces of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, which once dominated Ethiopia’s government but has been sidelined under Mr Abiy’s rule.
The two governments now regard each other as illegal.
Mr Abiy, last year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, has rejected international “interference”.
His government has said three high-level African Union envoys for the conflict can meet with him, but not with the Tigray leaders.