Ethiopian forces will take the Tigrayan capital within the coming days, the army says

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Amhara Special Force members return to the mechanized military base of the 5th Division of Dansha after fighting the Tigray People & # 39; s Liberation Front (TPLF) in Danasha, Amhara region, near the Tigray border

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ADDIS ABABA / NAIROBI (Reuters) – Ethiopian forces will take control of the Tigray region's capital, Mekelle, in the coming days, the military said late Friday, a day after the prime minister announced the "final phase" of an offensive in the region would have.

Federal forces took control of Wikro, a town 50 km north of Mekelle, and "will be in control of Mekelle in a few days," Lieutenant General Hassan Ibrahim said in a statement. Government forces have also taken control of several other cities, he said.

Reuters was not immediately able to reach the Tigray People & # 39; s Liberation Front (TPLF) to comment or review the statement.

Allegations by all sides of the three-week-old conflict between the government and the TPLF armed forces have not been verified as telephone and internet connections to the region are disrupted and access to the area is tightly controlled.

On Friday evening in neighboring Eritrea, "a loud noise, possibly an explosion," was heard in the capital, Asmara, the US embassy said in a statement on Saturday.

Reuters has not been able to reach the Eritrean government official for more than two weeks. TPLF missiles hit neighboring Eritrea on November 14th.

The Ethiopian military has fought against rebellious local forces in the northern region of Tigray, which borders Eritrea and Sudan.

Thousands of people are believed to have died and that there has been widespread destruction from air strikes and ground fighting since the beginning of the war. Around 43,000 refugees have fled to Sudan.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed accuses Tigrayan leaders of starting the war by attacking federal troops at a base in Tigray on November 4th. The TPLF says the attack was a preemptive strike.

The government last Sunday gave the TPLF an ultimatum to lay down their arms or face an attack on Mekelle, a town of 500,000, and feared aid groups with large civilian casualties. The ultimatum expired on Wednesday.

Abiy, who announced on Thursday that the military was entering the "final phase" of its offensive, told African peace ambassadors on Friday that his government would protect civilians in Tigray.

However, a statement by the Prime Minister's Office following their meeting made no mention of talks with the TPLF to end the fighting. No plans for further discussions with them were mentioned either.

LETTER TO ENVOYS

A letter was sent to the embassies in Addis Ababa on Friday advising the defense that if they were in contact with anonymous enemies of Ethiopia, they would risk displacement.

"Some military attachés are working with those who have endangered the country's security, are blacklisted and wanted by the court's attorney," the letter said. The letter was shown by Brigadier General Boultie Tadesse of the Directorate of Foreign Defense Relations postmarked the copy by Reuters.

"We will expel those who do not refrain from their actions and are in contact with this extremist group."

A military spokesman and the head of the government's Tigray task force did not respond to requests for comment.

Billene Seyoum, a spokeswoman for the Prime Minister's Office, said she was unable to answer questions about the letter, including whether it was related to the TPLF, without seeing the original document.

Tigrayans, who make up about 6% of Ethiopia's 115 million people, dominated the government until Abiy took power two years ago.

Abiy promised to unite Ethiopians and establish freedoms after years of state repression that filled prisons with tens of thousands of political prisoners. His government also tried high-ranking Tigrayan officials for crimes such as corruption, torture and murder. The Tigrayan region viewed these processes as discrimination.

Abiy & # 39; s reforms created more political space, but also lifted long-suppressed tensions over land and resources.

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