Ethiopian forces and Tigrayan rebels fought a pitched battle for control of Kombolcha on Monday, terrified residents reported, after the rebels claimed to have taken over a second town in two days.
Reports of rebels capturing Kombolcha came a day after they claimed control of Dessie and, if confirmed, would mark a major advance by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in the nearly year-long war.
Kombolcha residents described non-stop gunfire overnight and into the early hours on Monday, with some saying they heard what sounded like an air strike on the town’s outskirts around midnight.
“I heard an air strike past midnight outside Kombolcha borders,” he added.
“Huge gunshots were heard until (this) morning”, he said, as the rebels battled federal troops and local militias.
Over the past two weeks, Ethiopia’s air force has carried out a string of aerial bombardments in Tigray.
– ‘Deadly siege’ –
“The international community should not turn (a) blind eye to such atrocities,” it said.
“His (Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s) forces are no where near & his generals are stampeding to make it to Addis,” Getachew said on Twitter.
Residents had earlier reported a heavy military build-up in the area, as civilians fleeing conflict-hit towns further north poured into Dessie seeking refuge.
The conflict has alarmed the international community, with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken calling for an immediate halt to military operations.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell tweeted: “All parties must stop the fighting in northern Ethiopia, lift the blockade for humanitarian aid, and refrain from hate speech.”
The TPLF, which dominated national politics for three decades until 2018, has stated it has no “other motive than breaking the deadly siege” on Tigray, which is in the throes of a severe humanitarian crisis.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has urged Ethiopians to use “any type of weapons… to block the destructive TPLF, to overturn it and bury it”.
The Amhara administration Sunday ordered all government institutions to suspend regular services and divert their budgets to “the survival campaign”.
Residents in Kemissie told AFP on Monday evening that the town appeared to be in government control, but reported sporadic gunfire and that people were evacuating the town.
The conflict erupted last November when Abiy deployed troops in Tigray, with the operation spiralling into a prolonged war marked by massacres, mass rapes and a humanitarian crisis.
Abiy, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019, said the operation was in response to attacks on army camps by the TPLF.