Ethiopia’s prime minister said the army has been ordered to move on the embattled Tigray regional capital after his 72-hour ultimatum ended for Tigray leaders to surrender, and he warned its half a million residents to stay indoors and disarm.
Instead, UN humanitarian spokesman Saviano Abreu said“an increasing number of people continues to leave Mekele” even after the deadline expired.
They join tens of thousands of newly displaced people throughout the region that remains almost completely sealed off from the world, beyond the reach of desperately needed food and other aid.
The military offensive “has reached its final stage” after three weeks of fighting, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s office said. That means tanks and other weaponry can close in on Mekele, whose residents had been warned of “no mercy” if they did not move away from Tigray leaders in time.
That caused international alarm as rights groups said such wording could violate international law and put civilians in further danger.
Mr Abiy’s statement asserted that thousands of Tigray militia and special forces surrendered during the 72-hour period that ended on Wednesday evening.
“We will take utmost care to protect civilians,” the statement said.
The United Nations has reported people fleeing the city, but communications and transport links remain severed to Tigray, and it is not clear how many people in Mekele received the warnings in time.
Tigray regional leaders could not immediately be reached.
“What is happening is beyond words, and it is heart-breaking to see a great country is collapsing,” a Mekele resident wrote in a message 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 international community is pleading for immediate de-escalation, dialogue and humanitarian access as Ethiopian forces have fought their way through Tigray to Mekele.
On Thursday the European Union commissioner for crisis management Janez Lenarcic tweeted: “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.”
But Mr Abiy, last year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, however, has rejected international “interference”.
His government has said three high-level African Union envoys for the conflict can meet with Mr Abiy, but not with the Tigray leaders.
On Thursday, his office said for the first time that the country’s ministry of peace would open a “humanitarian access route”.
Although it gave no details, it also said distribution of supplies has begun in areas of Tigray now under government control.
The statement came hours after the UN warned of “very critical” shortages in the Tigray region as its population of six million remained sealed off.
Mr Abreu said that the UN appreciates the Ethiopian government’s acknowledgement of the need for urgent humanitarian assistance.
He added: “We look forward to working with all parties to the conflict to ensure that humanitarians have unconditional, safe and immediate access to, and within, Tigray.
“We want to do so in accordance with the globally agreed-upon principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and operational independence.”
The two governments now regard each other as illegal.
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 the UN update released overnight.
And more than 600,000 people who rely on monthly food rations have not received them this month.
Travel blockages are so dire that even within Mekele the UN World Food Programme 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, and that the complete shutdown of communications “could amount to a form of collective punishment by imposing penalties on people without a clear lawful basis”.
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.”