Leader of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) Gebretsion Micheal rejected Monday the 72 hours ultimatum issued by the Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed for the dissident region of Tigray to surrender.

Nearly three weeks after the start of a military operation aimed at restoring its authority over this region of northern Ethiopia, the federal government on Sunday said it plans to “encircle” Mekele, the capital of Tigray and seat of the local government of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which it wants to replace with “legitimate authorities”.

Ten days ago, Mr. Abiy issued a first ultimatum to the Tigrayan fighters, calling on them to defect and join the federal army. A few days later, he announced that the military intervention in Tigray, launched on November 4, was entering its “final phase”.

“How many times (Abiy Ahmed) has he said three days? He doesn’t understand who we are. We are a people of principles and ready to die to defend our right to administer our region,” the president of Tigray and leader of the TPLF, Debretsion Gebremichael said on Monday.

“This is to cover up the defeat that (Ethiopian soldiers) suffered today on three fronts. In order to have time to regroup,” he added, without specifying which fronts it was about.

– “Your destruction” –

The TPLF also announced, via its official news agency, Tigray Mass Media Agency, to have fired rockets on Monday at the airport of Bahir Dar, capital of the neighboring region of Amhara. This is the third time this airport has been targeted by TPLF attacks, which claims that it is used by Ethiopian aircraft bombing Tigray.

On Monday, two residents of Bahir Dar told AFP they heard rockets falling. “Three rockets fell on the city near the airport area. We do not know if there are casualties or damage,” said one of them.

Field and independent verification of each side’s claims is very difficult, as Tigray has been virtually cut off since the beginning of the conflict.

No accurate account of the fighting, which has resulted in at least hundreds of deaths, is available either.

More than 40,000 Ethiopian refugees have arrived in Sudan since November 10, fleeing the government offensive against Tigray, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said Monday.

“The road to your destruction is coming to an end,” Mr. Abiy, prime minister since 2018 and Nobel Peace Prize winner the following year, wrote Sunday to TPLF leaders.

The federal government now claims to control the locality of Edaga Hamus, 100 kilometers north of Mekele, and the army said last week that it controls Mehoni, 125 kilometers to the south. Both towns are on the main road to the regional capital.

– Attempts at mediation –

The army warned Sunday of an imminent attack on Mekele, which it intends to “surround with tanks”. One of its spokesmen invited its half million inhabitants to “save themselves”, announcing that there would be “no mercy”.

The Prime Minister accused the TPLF on Sunday of having destroyed many infrastructures in Tigray, including the airport of the ancient city of Aksum (northwest), also controlled by the federal army according to Addis Ababa, as well as “schools, medical centers, bridges and roads that were the property of the country”.

Calling for a rapid de-escalation of the conflict, the international community launched several mediation attempts. The African Union (AU), in particular, appointed former Mozambican president Joaquim Chissano, Liberian Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and South African Kgalema Motlanthe as special envoys.

On Monday, the spokesman of the government crisis unit for Tigray, Redwan Hussein, declined in substance this mediation, but said that the government would “talk with these envoys out of respect for (…) African leaders.

“There could be several scenarios in which the issue of a lasting peace could be discussed, but not with” the TPLF, Redwan said.

The UN Security Council will hold its first meeting on Tuesday on the war in Tigray, at the request of South Africa, Niger, Tunisia and St. Vincent and the Grenadines, diplomatic sources said Monday. This virtual meeting will be held behind closed doors.

Tensions between Addis Ababa and the TPLF, which has controlled Ethiopia’s political and security apparatus for nearly three decades, culminated in September in Tigray in a vote that the federal government called “illegitimate”.

Abiy justified sending the army to Tigray by accusing the TPLF of subsequently attacking two federal army bases in the region, which the Tigrayan authorities deny.

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