Ethiopian Federal Forces Warn “No Mercy” As They Surround Mekelle

Ethiopian federal forces took military control of Idaga Hamus in their march toward the Tigrayan capital of Mekelle on November 21st. Military officials have been sending out warnings to the civilians in Mekelle ahead of their arrival.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed gave Tigrayan forces a 72 hour time frame to peacefully surrender. In the tweet, the Prime Minister claimed the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) is “at the point of no return.”

Communications have been barred in Tigray which has made it difficult for journalists to validate claims made by either side.

The messaging sent out by military spokesman Colonel Dejene Tsegaye to Tigrayan civilians included a warning to save themselves from artillery by separating themselves from militants. The message finishes “After that, there will be no mercy.” Col. Tsegaye went on to accuse Tigray leaders of hiding amongst civilian populations.

Laetitia Bader, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, tweeted condemnation of the Ethiopian government’s threats toward civilians. In the tweet she states “treating a whole city as a military target would not only unlawful, it could also be considered a form of collective punishment.” Former United States UN Ambassador and US National Security Advisor Susan Rice noted in a tweet that another way to phrase it would be “war crimes.”

The Ethiopian federal forces have stated their current strategy is to surround the city of Mekelle with tanks and take the city by force if the TPLF refuses to surrender. The TPLF has so far made no moves toward surrender.

The Ethiopian Prime Minister, a former recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, has dismissed a move by the African Union to mediate the conflict. The African Union assigned three former heads of state on Friday to “engage all sides to the conflict with a new view to ending hostilities” according to the African Union Chairman Cyril Ramaphosa.

The envoys selected are former presidents Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia, and Kgalema Motlanthe of South Africa.

The city of Mekelle lies on a plateau at an altitude of over 7,000 feet and houses half a million inhabitants. Exact numbers on how many people have been killed in the conflict are unclear due to communications being down. The Guardian reports more than 36,000 refugees have fled into Sudan to escape the conflict. The region of Tigray already houses its own refugees from Eritrea totalling nearly 100,000. The growing number of displaced people has been pushing the region toward a “vast humanitarian crisis” according to the Associated Press. AP reports that the United Nations estimates about 2 million people in Tigray are in urgent need of food, fuel, and medical supplies.

AP also reports that International Crisis Group’s analyst William Davison has been deported from Ethiopia. The organization says there hasn’t been a formal reason given for the deportation but that it has “little doubt” it is in relation to the current conflict. The organization also notes that “on the same day Mr. Davison was expelled, authorities also issued warning letters to the news agency Reuters’ Ethiopia correspondent and to the BBC and Deutsche Welle stations.”

In a conflict featuring a Nobel Peace Prize recipient, it is alarming to see such quick dismissal of mediation. With concerns surrounding the stability of the Horn of Africa in the midst of this conflict, as well as concerns with rumours of ethnic-based violence from refugees fleeing Tigray, moving toward the de-escalation of violence before the siege of Mekelle is crucial. Further, with civilians still inside the city, military advancement could lead to a rise in civilian deaths. The forces in conflict should accept the mediation offer from the African Union prior to taking any further military action. It is in the best interest of the civilian populations in the Tigray region, both Ethiopian citizens and Eritrean refugees alike. The Ethiopian government needs to work to reinstate communications within the region and push to begin peace talks instead of further military action.