“The 72-hour period granted to the criminal TPLF clique to surrender peacefully is now over and our law enforcement campaign has reached its final stage,” Abiy tweeted, adding that civilians would be spared and that thousands of fighters had already surrendered. The TPLF has denied its fighters are surrendering.
Abiy’s office said authorities had begun distributing aid in areas under the control of the federal government in the Tigray region. Four camps for displaced persons were being established.
A statement added: “This humanitarian assistance will now be further reinforced with the opening of a humanitarian access route to be managed under the auspices of the Ministry of Peace.”
Abiy, who won the Nobel peace prize last year for ending a long-running stand-off with Eritrea, called on the people of Mekelle to “disarm, stay at home and stay away from military targets”.
“Our National Defence Forces have carefully devised a strategy to bring the TPLF criminal clique to justice without harming innocent civilians, heritage sites, places of worship, development institutions and property,” he added.
A diplomatic source said the TPLF “have mobilised lots of people in Mekelle. They are digging trenches and everyone has an AK47.”
The conflict pits Ethiopia’s federal government against the TPLF, which dominated the country until Abiy took power two years ago. Tigrayans make up about 6 per cent of Ethiopia’s population.
Abiy accuses Tigrayan leaders of starting hostilities by attacking federal troops. The rebels say his government has marginalised Tigrayans. Each side now regards the other as illegal.
African envoys went to Ethiopia to plead for peace on Wednesday, hours before the ultimatum was to expire.
Thousands of people are already believed to have died and there has been widespread destruction from aerial bombardment and ground fighting since the war began on November 4. TPLF rockets have also hit the capital of neighbouring Eritrea.
Nearly 43,000 refugees have fled over the border to Sudan. Nearly 100,000 Eritrean refugees at camps in northern Tigray have come close to the line of fire.
Misery continues for the refugees in Sudan, with little food, little medicine, little shelter, little funding and little or no contact with loved ones left behind in Tigray. “We are absolutely not ready,” said Suleiman Ali Mousa, the governor of Qadarif province.
“Help us so that we don’t die,” said one refugee, Terhas Adiso. “We came from war. We were scared we were going to die from the war and we came here, we don’t want to die of hunger, disease. If they are going to help us they need to help us quickly. That’s all I am going to say.”
The international community has urgently called for communications to be restored to the Tigray region so that claims from both sides can be investigated, and for immediate humanitarian access.
The UN says it has been unable to send supplies into Tigray and that people there are living in fear.
Daniel Bekele, head of the state-appointed Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, said “extreme caution to avoid civilian harm is of even greater importance, now, at this stage of the conflict”.
On Wednesday, Human Rights Watch said both sides must avoid putting civilians in danger. The government’s warning did not absolve it of the duty to protect civilians when conducting military operations in the city of Mekelle, the watchdog said.
“We are also concerned by reports that the TPLF has deployed its forces in heavily populated areas. They need to ensure the safety of civilians under their control,” it said.
Meanwhile, reports continued of alleged targeting of ethnic Tigrayans, even outside Ethiopia. Three soldiers serving with the UN peacekeeping force in South Sudan were ordered home over the weekend, the force said in a statement. The AP has confirmed the repatriated soldiers are Tigrayan.
“If personnel are discriminated against because of their ethnicity or any other reason, this could involve a human rights violation under international law,” the statement said.
Abiy’s government has said it aims to protect civilians, including Tigrayans, but reports continue of arrests, discrimination, house-to-house searches and frozen bank accounts.