Ethiopia is beginning the "ultimate part" of the offensive within the Tigray area, says PM

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed speaks during a media conference at the Elysee Palace in Paris

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ADDIS ABABA / NAIROBI (Reuters) – The Ethiopian military will begin the "final phase" of an offensive in the rebellious region of North Tigray, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said Thursday, hours after an ultimatum to surrender the Tigray forces expired.

The government gave the Tigray People & # 39; s Liberation Front (TPLF) 72 hours on Sunday to lay down their arms or face an attack on Mekelle, the regional capital of 500,000 people.

Human rights groups have raised concerns about civilians involved in military operations in which thousands are believed to have died since the fighting began on November 4th.

Reuters was unable to immediately reach the TPLF for comment. Claims made by all sides could not be verified because telephone and internet connections to the area are down and access to the area is tightly controlled.

"The 72-hour period that the criminal TPLF clique was given to surrender peacefully is now over and our law enforcement campaign has reached its end," Abiy tweeted, adding that civilians would be spared and thousands of fighters had already surrendered . The TPLF has denied that their fighters surrender.

Abiy & # 39; s office said authorities had started distributing aid to areas controlled by the federal government in the Tigray region. Four camps were set up for displaced persons.

A statement added: "This humanitarian aid will now be further strengthened with the opening of a humanitarian access route to be administered under the auspices of the Ministry of Peace."

Almost 43,000 Ethiopian refugees have fled across the border into Sudan, although the influx has dropped from many thousands a day to several hundred in recent days, according to data from the United States Refugee Agency, analyzed by Reuters.

Ethiopian refugees coming to Sudan have told aid workers that other Ethiopians who have fled fighting have been prevented from crossing the border, two humanitarian sources told Reuters.

It was not immediately clear who was blocking the refugees from crossing in Ethiopia, one of the sources said. "As far as we know, the border remains open," United States humanitarian coordinator in Ethiopia Catherine Sozi told Reuters.

Abiy said refugees are welcome to return. A helper at the Hamdayet border crossing in Sudan said he saw Ethiopian soldiers "yell at" refugees on Wednesday that it was safe to return home.

NOBEL PRICE

Abiy, who won the Nobel Peace Prize last year for ending a longstanding conflict with Eritrea, urged the people of Mekelle to "disarm, stay at home and stay away from military targets."

"Our National Defense Forces have carefully developed a strategy to bring the TPLF criminal clique to justice without harming innocent civilians, cultural heritage sites, places of worship, development institutions and property," he added.

A diplomatic source said the TPLF has "mobilized a lot of people in Mekelle. They are digging trenches and everyone has an AK47."

The Tigrayan armed forces have large stocks of military equipment and, according to experts, number up to 250,000 men.

African ambassadors for peace sent to Ethiopia should meet Abiy on Friday, two diplomatic sources said.

The conflict leads the Ethiopian federal government against the TPLF, which ruled the country until Abiy took power two years ago.

Abiy accuses the Tigrayan leaders of starting hostilities by attacking federal troops. The rebels say his government marginalized Tigrayans, who make up about 6% of the Ethiopian population.

Thousands of people are already believed to have died and air strikes and ground fighting have largely been destroyed since the war began. TPLF missiles hit the capital of neighboring Eritrea.

Daniel Bekele, head of the state-appointed Ethiopian Commission on Human Rights, said "extreme caution to avoid civil harm is even more important at this stage of the conflict".

On Wednesday, Human Rights Watch said both sides must avoid putting civilians at risk. The government’s warning does not release them from their duty to protect civilians during military operations in Mekelle.

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