Troops ordered to move on Tigray capital, says Ethiopian PM

Ethiopia's prime minister says the army has been ordered to move on the embattled Tigray capital after his 72-hour ultimatum for Tigray leaders to surrender ended, and he warns residents to "stay indoors."

Statement by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's office says military offensive 'has reached its final stage'

Ethiopian women who fled the fighting in Tigray region gather Sunday in Hamdayet village near the Setit river on the Sudan-Ethiopia border. A statement from Ethiopia's prime minister's office said the army has been ordered to move on the embattled Tigray regional capital. (Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/Reuters)

Ethiopia's prime minister said Thursday the army has been ordered to move on the embattled Tigray regional capital after his 72-hour ultimatum for Tigray leaders to surrender ended, and he warned residents to stay indoors and disarm.

The statement by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's office means tanks and other weaponry can now close in on Mekele, a city of some half-million people. His government has warned of "no mercy" if residents don't move away from the Tigray leaders in time.

The military offensive "has reached its final stage" after three weeks of fighting, the new statement said.

It asserts that thousands of Tigray militia and special forces surrendered during the 72-hour period. "We will take utmost care to protect civilians," it says.

The United Nations has reported people fleeing the city, but communications and transport links remain severed to Tigray, and it's not clear how many people in Mekele received the warnings.

"What is happening is beyond words, and it is heartbreaking to see a great country is collapsing," said a message sent from a Mekele resident on Wednesday and seen by The Associated Press. The message expressed hopelessness at not being able to reach loved ones elsewhere in the region, adding, "Ohhhhhhhh GOD!"

The United Nations has warned of 'very critical' shortages in the Tigray region as its population of six million remains sealed off. (CBC)

The alarmed international community is calling for immediate de-escalation, dialogue and humanitarian access.

"The hostilities in Ethiopia are of major concern for the EU. Next to the casualties, the danger of a major humanitarian crisis is imminent. An immediate de-escalation is needed by all parties," European Union commissioner for crisis management Janez Lenarcic tweeted Thursday.

But Abiy, last year's Nobel Peace Prize winner, has rejected international "interference." His government has said three high-level African Union envoys for the conflict can meet with Abiy, but not with the Tigray leaders.

Fuel, cash, food running out

Abiy's office on Thursday for the first time did say a "humanitarian access route" would open under the management of the country's Ministry of Peace, with no details. It also said distribution of supplies has begun in areas of Tigray now under government control.

That came hours after the UN said shortages have become "very critical" in the Tigray region as its population of six million remains sealed off.

It remains difficult to verify claims in the fighting that erupted Nov. 4 between Ethiopian forces and the heavily armed forces of the Tigray People's Liberation Front, which once dominated Ethiopia's government but has been sidelined under Abiy's rule. The two governments now regard each other as illegal.

People who fled the conflict in Ethiopia's Tigray region walk at Umm Rakouba refugee camp in Qadarif, eastern Sudan, on Wednesday. (Nariman El-Mofty/The Associated Press)

Fuel and cash are running out, more than one million people are now estimated to be displaced and food for nearly 100,000 refugees from Eritrea will be gone in a week, according to a new report released overnight. And more than 600,000 people who rely on monthly food rations haven't received them this month.

Travel blockages are so dire that even within Mekele the UN World Food Program cannot obtain access to transport food from its warehouses there.

A statement this week from a civil society representative in the region, seen by the Associated Press, described heavy bombardment of communities elsewhere that has kept many residents from fleeing.

Other people are frantically moving within the Tigray region from one district to another and "living within church compounds, streets, schools, health centres," the statement warned, and it pleaded for a safe corridor to ship in aid as food runs out.

Human Rights Watch is warning that "actions that deliberately impede relief supplies" violate international humanitarian law.

Refugees flee to Sudan

Another crisis is unfolding as more than 40,000 Ethiopian refugees have fled into a remote area of Sudan, where humanitarian groups and local communities struggle to feed, treat and shelter them. Nearly half the refugees are children under 18. Many fled with nothing.

"When it is cold, it hurts so much," said one wounded refugee, Alam Kafa. "At night, I have to wrap tightly with a blanket so I can sleep. But I don't sleep at night."

"Just to imagine for everything, literally for everything, starting from your food, ending with your water drinking, ending just to go for the toilet facilities and washing your hands, for everything you depend on somebody else," said Javanshir Hajiyev with aid group Mercy Corps. "This is really a very dire situation. I can't stress how difficult it is."