Leaders in Ethiopia’s war-hit Tigray pledged to drive out “enemies” from the region suggesting fighting will continue despite a federal government ceasefire declaration.
Tigrayan forces were conducting “mop-up” operations on Tuesday against Ethiopian government forces retreating from the regional capital Mekelle and the city was “100 percent” back under their control.
“Twenty-five minutes ago the active engagement in Mekelle was over,” Getachew Reda, spokesman for the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), told Reuters news agency by satellite phone. “Our forces are still in hot pursuit to the south, east.”
A spokeswoman for the prime minister, a military spokesman, and the head of the government’s emergency taskforce in Tigray did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Eritrean forces – who fought alongside Ethiopia’s troops – are no longer visible in the town of Shire in Tigray, a witness told Reuters.
The retreat follows days of territorial gains by the Tigrayan forces battling Ethiopia’s government and its allies.
The witness, who declined to be named for security reasons, said the Eritrean soldiers had not been seen since Monday night. A second resident confirmed there was a large movement of Eritrean troops out of Shire towards a town in the north.
A serious blow
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent federal troops into Tigray last November to remove the TPLF government. He said the move came in response to TPLF attacks on federal army camps and promised victory would be swift.
But almost eight months on, the operation suffered a serious blow when rebel troops entered Mekelle on Monday, prompting celebrations in the streets as federal soldiers and members of an Abiy-appointed interim regional government fled.
Abiy’s government then announced on Monday night it was declaring a “unilateral ceasefire” – though there was no immediate response from the TPLF.
“The government and army of Tigray will carry out all the tasks necessary to ensure the survival and security of our people,” a TPLF statement said. “The government of Tigray calls upon our people and army of Tigray to intensify their struggle until our enemies completely leave Tigray.”
A guerrilla war
Al Jazeera’s Hiba Morgan, reporting from Khartoum in neighbouring Sudan, said the federal government’s announcement of a ceasefire is an admission that the Ethiopian national defence forces are not in the same position as they were only a week ago.
“Let’s not forget that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed – on the 28th of November, just about three weeks after the offensive on the Tigray region – he announced that the war was largely over, that there is stability and the [new] government,” Morgan said.
“He did not announce a ceasefire back then. The Tigray Liberation Movement said they are going to continue fighting even if it is a guerrilla war, which is what apparently unfolded a few months after the Abiy’s announcement.”
Though the Tigray defence forces did not hold any big cities and towns for months, its leaders have repeatedly boasted that they were regrouping in remote rural areas.
Last week, they launched a major offensive that coincided with Ethiopia’s highly anticipated national elections, which unfolded in much of the country though not in Tigray.
The results of the polls have yet to be announced, but they are widely expected to deliver Abiy a formal mandate.
‘Difficult’ road to peace
The brutal war in Tigray has been marked by massacres, widespread sexual violence and other abuses.
The United Nations has also warned the conflict has pushed hundreds of thousands of people to the brink of famine.
In announcing its ceasefire, the federal government said it would last until the end of the current “farming season” and was intended to facilitate agricultural production and aid distribution while allowing rebel fighters “to return to a peaceful road”.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on Monday he had spoken with Abiy, winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, and was “hopeful that an effective cessation of hostilities will take place”.
He called recent events in Tigray “extremely worrisome” saying they “demonstrate, once again, that there is no military solution to the crisis”.
Britain, the United States, and Ireland have called for an emergency UN Security Council public meeting, which could happen on Friday, diplomatic sources said.
The Security Council has failed to hold a public session on Tigray since the war erupted, with many African countries, China, Russia and other nations deeming the crisis an internal Ethiopian affair.
Throughout the fighting, Abiy has benefitted from the military backing of soldiers from neighbouring Eritrea and Ethiopia’s Amhara region, which borders Tigray to the south.
These forces’ involvement “will complicate a blanket application of a temporary ceasefire, which so far appears to be a mostly unilateral move by the federal government”, said Connor Vasey, an analyst with the risk consultancy Eurasia Group.
Should discussions on a possible political settlement actually go ahead, they “are likely to be difficult and protracted”, Vasey said.