The leader of Ethiopia’s dissident Tigray region has said his people are “ready to die” defending their homeland, rejecting the prime minister’s Sunday night ultimatum that they surrender within 72 hours.
Abiy Ahmed launched a military campaign against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) on 4 November, accusing it of attacking two federal military camps in the northern region, and of defying and seeking to destabilise his government.
The federal army says its forces are within 37 miles (60km) of Mekelle, the Tigracy capital and the seat of the TPLF, ahead of a threatened bombardment of the city of half a million people.
Abiy – last year’s Nobel peace prize winner – on Sunday called on the TPLF to surrender peacefully within three days, saying they were “at a point of no return”.
The TPLF’s leader, Debretsion Gebremichael, claimed Abiy was trying to cover for setbacks his army had suffered against Tigrayan forces, and was issuing threats to buy time. “He doesn’t understand who we are. We are people of principle and ready to die in defence of our right to administer our region,” Debretsion told Agence France-Presse via WhatsApp on Monday.
On Tuesday, a spokesman for the Tigray forces said they had “completely destroyed” the army’s 21st mechanised division. There is no confirmation of the claim and government officials did not return calls seeking comment.
A communications blackout in the region has made claims from both sides difficult to verify.
The conflict has killed hundreds so far and displaced many more. More than 40,000 refugees have crossed into neighbouring Sudan and roads in Tigray are crowded with people escaping from the fighting.