PM Abiy Ahmed's government rebuffs African Union effort to arbitrate, saying its troops are drawing close to TPLF-held capital of northern Tigray region.

Refugees who fled conflict in Tigray ride boat on banks of Tekeze River on Sudan-Ethiopia border, in Hamdayet, Sudan, on November 21, 2020.
Refugees who fled conflict in Tigray ride boat on banks of Tekeze River on Sudan-Ethiopia border, in Hamdayet, Sudan, on November 21, 2020. (AP)

Ethiopia's government has claimed advances in its battle against the dissident Tigray region while showing no signs of bowing to international pressure for a halt to the conflict that has caused tens of thousands to flee and raised fears of a humanitarian disaster.

In a statement on Saturday, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed praised his army's advance, saying "our forces have now fully liberated Adigrat town from Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) militia as of today."

"Together with the rest of Ethiopia, we will work to ensure that all humanitarian needs will be addressed," Abiy added.

"The overall safety and well-being of the people of Tigray is of paramount importance to the Federal government and we will do all that is necessary to ensure stability prevails in the Tigray region and that our citizens are free from harm and want," he said.

Abiy said his forces will soon reach Mekelle, capital of Tigray, after taking various surrounding towns. He said Adigrat had also fallen, about 116 km north of Mekelle.

"News circulating that the [African Union] envoys will be travelling to Ethiopia to mediate between the Federal Government and TPLF’s criminal element is fake," Ethiopia's government tweeted on Saturday.

READ MORE: Ethiopian government troops continue push for Tigray regional capital

TPLF reports civilian deaths

"Our defence forces are currently marching on Mekele," the Ethiopia State of Emergency Fact Check, a government agency, said. 

The regional capital is the seat of the TPLF, which the government is seeking to dislodge from power.

The agency also said the national army had captured a string of towns in Tigray, including the ancient city of Aksum and Adigrat, 117 kilometres north of Mekele.

In a statement, the TPLF said there had been a "heavy bombardment" of Adigrat, but did not say who was now in control.

TPLF said nine civilians had died among heavy casualties in artillery hits on Adigrat.

The government could not immediately be reached for comment but has previously repeatedly denied targeting civilians.

A communications blackout in the region has made assertions from both sides in the conflict difficult to verify.

READ MORE: Ethiopia's latest airstrike hits Tigray university

Thousands killed or displaced 

More than two weeks into its offensive, the government says Tigrayan forces are bulldozing roads and destroyed bridges to hold up the advance on Mekelle, home to about half a million people.

The Tigrayans have promised "hell" for their advancing enemies. They have denied destroying bridges but were not reachable for comment about ploughing up roads.

Hundreds, possibly thousands, have died and more than 30,000 refugees have fled to Sudan since the conflict erupted on November 4. 

The fighting has spread beyond Tigray, whose forces have fired rockets at the neighbouring Amhara region and the nation of Eritrea, spurring concern of a wider war and the splintering of multi-ethnic Ethiopia.

Assertions on all sides are hard to verify because phone and internet connections have been down since the beginning of the conflict and media are largely barred.

Eritrea denies TPLF allegations it has sent soldiers over the border to back Abiy's offensive against the Tigrayan forces, who are also an old foe of Eritrea's.

READ MORE: What is behind the ethnic divide in Ethiopia?

AU mediation efforts

On Friday, the African Union bloc appointed former presidents Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia and Kgalema Motlanthe of South Africa as special envoys to seek a ceasefire and mediation talks.

But Ethiopia rebuffed the mediation efforts.  

"News circulating that the envoys will be travelling to Ethiopia to mediate between the Federal Government and TPLF’s criminal element is fake," the government tweeted on Saturday.

Abiy accuses the Tigrayan leaders of revolting against central authority and attacking federal troops in the town of Dansha. 

The rebels say Abiy's government has marginalised and persecuted Tigrayans since taking office two years ago.

Abiy denies that, saying he is seeking only to restore law and order and preserve the unity of Ethiopia and its 115 million people.

An overview of destroyed buildings near Dansha airport in Dansha, Ethiopia, is seen in this satellite image taken November 18, 2020 and supplied by Maxar Technologies.
An overview of destroyed buildings near Dansha airport in Dansha, Ethiopia, is seen in this satellite image taken November 18, 2020 and supplied by Maxar Technologies. (Reuters)

Humanitarian crisis 

Aid workers say the conflict is creating a humanitarian crisis in Tigray, where many among the more than five million population were already displaced and relying on food aid even before the conflict.

Satellite images from US-based space company Maxar Technologies showed destroyed buildings lining the main road near Dansha airport, where the government says there was a November 4 surprise attack on federal troops.

The TPLF is popular in its home region and dominated national politics from 1991 until Abiy took office.

Abiy's parents are from the larger Oromo and Amhara ethnic groups.

Refugees overwhelming Sudan 

Neighbouring Sudan, itself suffering from a severe economic crisis, was caught off-guard when the conflict broke out earlier this month.

It now hosts some 36,000 Ethiopians, with many in transit camps near the border, according to Sudan's refugee commission.

The UN is expecting that up to 200,000 Ethiopian could flee the unrest over the next six months, and its World Food Programme said it needs $24.6 million to meet their immediate needs in Sudan.

"The situation is very dire," said Jens Hesemann, emergency response coordinator for the UN refugee agency UNHCR, from the Hamdayet crossing point, appealing for urgent donor aid as he stood before tents and crowds of recently-arrived Ethiopians.

Thousands of refugees in Hamdayet and another crossing point, Luqdi, have been lining up for jerry cans and helpings of cornflour porridge and putting up makeshift tents under scrubland trees. Many had crowded into boats to cross a river into Sudan.

Map showing Ethiopia's federal states and restive Tigray region.
Map showing Ethiopia's federal states and restive Tigray region. (TRTWorld)
Source: TRTWorld and agencies