African envoys head for Ethiopia as ultimatum expires for assault

ADDIS ABABA / NAIROBI (Reuters) - African envoys traveled to Ethiopia on Wednesday to plead for peace hours before an ultimatum was due for Tigrayan forces to surrender or counter an attack on the northern region's capital, of which rights groups fear that they could cause great civilian casualties.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's government on Sunday issued a 72-hour ultimatum to the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) to lay down their arms or face an attack on Mekelle, the regional capital of the highlands with a population of 500,000.
According to Human Rights Watch, both sides must avoid putting civilians at risk. The government's warning does not absolve them from "their duty to ensure the protection of civilians when conducting military operations in urban areas."
"We are also concerned about reports that the TPLF has deployed its forces in densely populated areas. They must ensure the safety of the civilians they control," it said.
Thousands of people are already believed to have died and widespread destruction from air strikes and ground fighting since the war began on November 4th. Around 42,000 refugees have fled across the border into Sudan. TPLF missiles hit neighboring Eritrea.
Since the telephone and internet connections to Tigray were largely interrupted and access to the area was strictly controlled, it was impossible to confirm basic details about the situation on site. Both sides have described battlefield victories in which they killed large numbers of enemy fighters, although there is little clear evidence.
Tigray's regional state television reported Wednesday that fighters had destroyed a large squad of Eritrean troops moving towards a town 70 km north of Mekelle. It did not provide any evidence.
If this were confirmed, the presence of Eritrean ground forces would mean a significant escalation of the conflict. Eritrea has denied taking part in the fighting in the past. Reuters has been unable to reach Eritrean officials for comment for more than two weeks. The Tigrayan armed forces, which have been hostile to Eritrea for decades, have fired missiles across the border.
AMMA news agency, run by authorities in the Amhara region of Ethiopia that supports Abiy, said more than 10,000 Tigrayan "junta forces" had been "destroyed".
There was no immediate response from the TPLF. A senior diplomat involved in the peace effort said he hadn't seen evidence of battles large enough to kill so many fighters, although he couldn't rule it out.
The conflict puts the Ethiopian central government against the TPLF, which ruled the country for decades until Abiy took power two years ago. Ethiopia is an amalgamation of 10 regions that are led by different ethnic groups. Tigrayans make up around 5% of the population, but from 1991 to 2018 they had an oversized influence as the most powerful force in a multi-ethnic government coalition.
Three ambassadors from the African Union (AU) - ex-presidents Joaquim Chissano from Mozambique, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf from Liberia and Kgalema Motlanthe from South Africa - should meet in the Ethiopian capital on Wednesday, diplomatic sources said.
Abiy, who won the Nobel Peace Prize last year for ending a two-decade stalemate with Eritrea, announced that he will receive it but won't speak to TPLF minds until they are defeated or surrender.
The senior diplomat told Reuters that foreign concerns are growing over signs of "clear ethnic violence" and "some form of Eritrean involvement".
Both sides have accused the other of ethnic murders and at the same time denied responsibility for its implementation.
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Jake Sullivan, named National Security Advisor-elected Joe Biden, urged dialogue.
"I am deeply concerned about the risk of violence against civilians, including potential war crimes, in the fighting over Mekelle in Ethiopia," he tweeted.
Long rows of cars formed on the ground at gas stations in Mekelle, where it was being rationed, according to satellite imagery dated Nov. 23, provided to Reuters by Maxar Technologies.
In Tigray, satellite imagery showed Ethiopian troops in the ancient city of Axum and trenches being dug across the runway at the local airport. The history and ruins of Axum give Ethiopia the claim to be one of the oldest centers of Christianity in the world.
Abiy reiterated his position on Wednesday that the Tigray fighting was an internal law enforcement matter.
"Because the Ethiopian government has portrayed this as a domestic, criminal situation, they are avoiding the kind of diplomacy and international mediation that they normally part of in offering regional states," said Grant Harris, former senior director of African Affairs at the National Security Council in Barack Obama's US administration.
(Reporting by Addis Ababa Newsroom; Katharine Houreld, David Lewis, Nazanine Moshiri, Maggie Fick and Omar Mohammed in Nairobi; Denis Dumo in South Sudan; writing by Andrew Cawthorne; editing by Katharine Houreld, Giles Elgood, William Maclean and Mark Heinrich)
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