Rebel forces concede the loss of Shire as the UN warns over air attacks’ ‘devastating impact’ on civilians.
The Ethiopian military has taken control of three towns from rebel forces in the war-torn northern Tigray region, the government said, amid growing alarm about the resurgent conflict pitting federal forces and their allies against Tigrayan rebels.
“The ENDF [Ethiopian National Defense Force] has taken control of the towns of Shire, Alamata and Korem without fighting in urban areas,” the government said in a statement on Tuesday, after the rebels said earlier that Shire had fallen.
Earlier, the Tigray Central Command said in a statement that Shire had fallen, adding that the rebels were in a “life or death” struggle.
Shire, a university town with an airport, sits at a strategic crossroads that could allow the Ethiopian military to gain wider access to other Tigray areas, such as the towns of Axum and Adwa, or even the regional capital, Mekelle, located 140km (90 miles) away. The city hosts ten of thousands of people who were displaced from other areas by the conflict.
Ethiopia’s army and allies including troops from neighbouring Eritrea have been battling Tigrayan forces on and off since late 2020, a conflict that has killed thousands, displaced millions and left hundreds of thousands on the brink of famine.
“If we don’t defend ourselves against our enemies, they will continue the atrocities,” the Tigrayan authorities said.
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk earlier on Tuesday warned that air attacks in the turbulent region risked seriously exacerbating the already “devastating impact” of hostilities on civilians, a day after UN chief Antonio Guterres warned that the war was “spiralling out of control”.
Redwan Hussein, national security adviser to Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, snapped back at the UN secretary general’s remarks.
“It was spiralling when being expanded to other regions. Now, it’s just being extinguished & degenerating. Aid & services (to Tigray) to follow soon!” Redwan said, suggesting the government believed it was making decisive military gains.
Tigrayan forces had advanced into neighbouring regions and towards the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, late last year before being pushed back. Redwan said the government was waiting for the African Union to announce a date for peace talks to start.
The conflict is rooted in long-running rivalries between regional power blocs over control of Ethiopia as a whole and in deep disagreements over how power should be balanced between federal and regional authorities.
The United Nations, the European Union and several senior US government officials have all called in recent days for an immediate ceasefire, for AU-sponsored talks to get started and for Eritrean troops to withdraw from Ethiopia.
A tweet on Tuesday by Eritrea’s information minister Yemane Meskel appeared to hit back at critics and accuse them of being biased in favour of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the dominant political party in the Tigray region and an enemy of Eritrea.
“Sadly, familiar pattern is again in full display: provide tacit support to TPLF when it unleashes reckless offensives by rejecting all peaceful avenues & raise spectre of humanitarian catastrophe when on retreat,” he wrote. He did not say who he was accusing of tacitly supporting the TPLF.
Eritrea is a highly militarised state that does not brook criticism or allow independent media scrutiny.
Al Jazeera and news agencies