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Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed says he is starting the “final phase” of the army operation in the northern region of Tigray after weeks of fighting.

He said the military would try not to harm civilians in the regional capital, Mekelle – a city of 500,000 – and urged residents to stay home.

The TPLF party that controls Mekelle has vowed to keep fighting.

The UN warns of possible war crimes if the Ethiopian army attacks Mekelle.

Mr Abiy’s announcement comes after a deadline he has given Tigray fighters to surrender on Wednesday.

Hundreds of people were reportedly killed and thousands displaced from their homes when Ethiopian forces seized various cities in Tigray from the TPLF.

However, details of the fighting are difficult to confirm as all telephone, mobile and internet communications with the Tigray region have been cut.

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Mekelle-based local journalist Daniel Berhane told the BBC that there were no signs of an attack yet and that the town’s shops, cafes and restaurants were “almost full”.

Three representatives from the African Union have arrived in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa to try to mediate talks, but Ethiopia has so far refused all attempts to mediate. The conflict was an internal matter and Mr Abiy’s government was involved in a law enforcement mission in Tigray.

The three envoys are not allowed to travel to Tigray.

Fear of costly Mekelle offensive

From Kalkidan Yibeltal, BBC News, Addis Ababa

In the “final phase” of the military offensive launched by Prime Minister Abiy after the 72-hour ultimatum expired, he spoke of a military strategy whereby top TPLF personnel are brought to justice without harming civilians or property in and around the country the Tigrayan city of Mekelle.

It is not clear what this strategy is, but it will not be easy to implement, especially when there is active fighting in the city, which is believed to be home to more than half a million people. Artillery attacks, as suggested by an Army official last week, and air strikes are particularly difficult to carry out without killing civilians and destroying civil infrastructure.

The troops of the federal government could be confronted with a kind of guerrilla war from the area outside of Mekelle.

And it could also take longer than the government wants to complete the offensive. This could mean a worsening of the humanitarian crisis and thus greater international pressure.

In the past three weeks the government has taken control of a number of areas in Tigray, but at a cost. An offensive against the state capital, which is considered the main fortress of the TPLF, could be even more costly.

What did PM Abiy say?

He ordered the Ethiopian military to launch an offensive against Mekelle in the “third and final phase” of the federal government’s military campaign against the TPLF.

Mr Abiy said “great care” is being taken to protect civilians and “every effort” is being made to limit the harm to Mekelle.

Image rightsReutersImage descriptionIn Mekelle, a town of 500,000 people, vehicles are queuing for petrol

He urged people in and around Mekelle to disarm, stay at home and stay away from military targets.

Religious and historical sites, institutions and residential areas would not be targeted, he said.

How does the TPLF react?

The leader of the powerful regional party, Debretsion Gebremichael, said the Tigray forces were “ready to die in defense of our right to govern our region.”

The TPLF fighters, who come mainly from a paramilitary unit and a well-trained local militia, are believed to be around 250,000. Some analysts fear the situation could turn into a guerrilla conflict – the TPLF continues to attack government forces even if they capture Mekelle.

An example of this could be the battle over Aksum Airport, which, according to sources close to the government, fell to Ethiopian forces on November 11 and is still controlled by them.

But 11 days after the capture, state media released pictures of the runway, which appeared to be littered with debris and ditches to prevent aircraft from landing, and accused the TPLF of the sabotage attacks. Mr Debretsion denied the destruction of the airport and said his armed forces had put up obstacles to stop the Ethiopian army.

Reuters quoted a diplomatic source as saying that the TPLF had “mobilized many people in Mekelle”. The person added, “They’re digging trenches and everyone has an AK-47 [rifle]. “

Media signature“We came with the clothes on our backs”

Human Rights Watch said both sides must protect civilians. It was concerned about reports that the TPLF had deployed forces in densely populated areas.

Aid groups fear that the conflict could trigger a humanitarian crisis and destabilize the Horn of Africa region.

The state-appointed Ethiopian Human Rights Commission has accused a Tigrayan youth group of being behind a massacre earlier this month that killed more than 600 civilians.

The commission says the group stabbed, beaten and burned non-Tigrayan residents of the city of Mai-Kadra with the collusion of local forces.

However, the TPLF has refused to participate and has called for an independent international investigation.

Learn more about the Tigray crisis:

Media signatureThree consequences of the ongoing crisis in Tigray.

What is the fighting about?

The conflict is rooted in longstanding tensions between the Ethiopian central government and the TPLF, which was the dominant political force across the country until Mr Abiy came to power in 2018 and introduced a number of far-reaching reforms.

When Mr Abiy postponed a national election due to coronavirus in June, relations continued to deteriorate.

The TPLF said the central government mandate had expired, arguing that Mr Abiy had not been tested in a national election.

In September the party held its own elections, which the central government described as “illegal”.

Then, on November 4, the Ethiopian Prime Minister announced an operation against the TPLF and accused its armed forces of attacking the army’s northern command center in Mekelle.

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