Fighting rages in several areas outside Tigrayan Mekelle city as Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed once again rules out dialogue with leaders of the defiant region.

Armed men guard sacks of food delivered to Ethiopian refugees fleeing from the ongoing fighting in the Tigray region, in Kassala state, Sudan November 24, 2020.
Armed men guard sacks of food delivered to Ethiopian refugees fleeing from the ongoing fighting in the Tigray region, in Kassala state, Sudan November 24, 2020. (Reuters)

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has ruled out dialogue with leaders of defiant Tigray, saying he is instead willing to speak to representatives "operating legally" in the region. 

Abiy was attending a meeting on Friday with three African Union special envoys trying to end the deadly conflict between federal troops and the region's forces.

The meeting occurred as people fled the Tigray capital Mekelle in fear of an imminent assault after Abiy said the army had been ordered to move in for the "final phase" of an offensive to arrest the leaders of the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) who run the region. 

Abiy's government and the regional one each consider the other illegitimate.

There was no immediate word from the three AU envoys, former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, former Mozambique President Joaquim Chissano, and former South African President Kgalema Motlanthe. 

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

AU spokesperson Ebba Kalondo did not say whether the envoys will meet with TPLF leaders, something Abiy's office has rejected.

The prime minister appreciated the AU envoys' "elderly concern" and told them his government’s failure to enforce rule of law in Tigray would "nurture a culture of impunity with devastating cost to the survival of the country," his office said.

Abiy had given the TPLF until Wednesday to lay down their arms or face an assault on Mekelle, the regional capital of 500,000 people.

The United Nations says 200 aid workers are also in the city.

READ MORE: Ethiopian PM orders troops to move on Tigray capital for final offensive

Fighting rages outside Mekelle

Reuters was unable to reach the TPLF for comment on Friday morning, but two diplomats said fighting raged in several areas outside Mekelle. 

Four regional diplomats said at least one rocket fired from Ethiopia's northern Tigray region targeted neighbouring Eritrea on Friday night. 

"There was one rocket coming from Tigray that seems to have landed south of Asmara (the Eritrean capital)," one diplomat said, noting there was no immediate information available on casualties or damages.

A resident of Mekelle said the city itself was quiet on Thursday night.

With phone and internet connections shut off to the region and access to the area tightly controlled, verifying claims by all sides has been impossible.

There was no indication that the Ethiopian military had entered the city of Mekelle. The TPLF has previously said it was digging trenches around the city. Reuters was unable to verify those claims.

Finance Minister Ahmed Shide said on Thursday that the government was trying to make people in the city aware of the military operation.

"We have made the people of Mekelle aware of the operation by deploying military helicopters and dropping pamphlets in Tigrinya and also in Amharic so that they protect themselves against this," he told France24.

Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, said such efforts were not akin to protecting civilians from harm.

"Warnings don't absolve the Ethiopian military of the duty to protect civilians during military operations in urban areas," Roth tweeted on Thursday.

Urging the TPLF not to deploy its forces among civilian populations in Mekelle, he added: "Violations by one side don't justify violations by the other."

READ MORE: Ethiopian forces surround Tigray's capital Mekelle as ultimatum expires

AU mediation efforts 

The African Union envoys were in Addis Ababa "with a view to help mediate between the parties to the conflict" in Ethiopia, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, who is also the AU chair, said earlier this week.

The conflict has sent shockwaves through the Horn of Africa. 

Abiy, who won last year's Nobel Peace Prize for ending a two-decade standoff with Eritrea, has said he will not talk with TPLF leaders until they are defeated or give up.

Thousands of people are already believed to have died amid air strikes and ground fighting since the war began on November 4. The United Nations estimates 1.1 million Ethiopians will need aid as a result of the conflict.

More than 43,000 refugees have fled to Sudan. TPLF rockets have hit the capital of neighbouring Eritrea.

READ MORE: Calls to end Ethiopia conflict grow as decisive battle looms

Ethiopians continue to flee 

People continued to flee Tigray on Friday in fear of an imminent assault.

Fighting reportedly remained well outside Mekele, whose residents had been warned by the Ethiopian government of "no mercy" if they didn't separate themselves from the Tigray leaders in time. 

Abiy on Thursday told residents to stay indoors and disarm as the army, with tanks, was given the order to move in.

Multiple crises are growing. 

Refugees from Eritrea have been in the line of fire as fighting sweeps by their camps of nearly 100,000 in the region’s north.

Refugees have also told The Associated Press that Ethiopian forces near the border with Sudan are impeding people from leaving Ethiopia, while refugee crossings have largely slowed to a trickle.

Ethiopia’s government has not commented on that.

READ MORE: UN Security Council set for first meeting on Ethiopia’s Tigray conflict

Covid-19 fears

Thousands have crossed into a remote part of Sudan where local communities and humanitarian workers struggle to provide food, shelter, and care. 

Nearly half of the refugees are children. The spread of Covid-19 is just one concern.

"We cannot keep social distancing here in the camp," said Mohammed Rafik Nasri, from the UN refugee agency.

"It is really challenging among the several issues in need that are growing because the number is growing. Today we are receiving a convoy of 1,000 arriving in the camp. And shelter is one of the biggest challenges that we have at the moment."

Scared, sometimes without a word of loved ones left behind, the refugees continue to share horrific accounts of the fighting and plead for it to stop.

"It makes me so sad. The country has no peace. You see one tribe killing another. It is so hard," said one, Atsbaha Gtsadik.

Region blocked to aid groups

Abiy's office said on Thursday that authorities were opening a route for humanitarian access but the UN said it had no information on the route and the region was blocked to aid groups.

Tigrayans, who make up about six percent of Ethiopia's 115 million-strong population, dominated the government until Abiy took power two years ago.

Abiy pledged to unite Ethiopians and introduce freedoms after years of state repression that filled jails with tens of thousands of political prisoners.

His government also put senior Tigrayan officials on trial for crimes such as corruption, torture, and murder. The region saw those trials as discrimination.

Abiy accuses Tigrayan leaders of starting the war by attacking federal troops at a base in Tigray three weeks ago. The TPLF has described the attack as a pre-emptive strike.

Tigrayan forces have large stocks of military hardware and number up to 250,000 men, experts say, while the region has a history of guerrilla resistance.

READ MORE: Tigray forces 'destroy' Ethiopia's Axum airport as surrender deadline looms

Source: TRTWorld and agencies