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article imageWounded flood hospitals after Ethiopia PM declares Tigray victory

By Robbie COREY-BOULET (AFP)     Nov 29, 2020 in World

Hospitals in the capital of Ethiopia's Tigray region faced an influx of trauma patients, an aid group said Sunday, a day after federal troops claimed control of the city and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said fighting was over.

Abiy, last year's Nobel Peace Prize winner, declared victory on Saturday evening in a three-week military confrontation with leaders of Tigray's ruling party, the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF).

But a communications blackout in Tigray has made it impossible to independently verify whether the regional capital Mekele is completely under federal government control.

It has also frustrated efforts to obtain a full picture of fierce fighting in Tigray that has left thousands dead and sent tens of thousands of refugees streaming across the border into Sudan.

On Sunday the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said health workers in Mekele were struggling with shortages of food and medical supplies including body bags.

At Ayder Referral Hospital, one of the city's biggest, the ICRC said it "found approximately 80 percent of patients to be suffering from trauma injuries," without specifying how the injuries were sustained.

"The influx of wounded forced the hospital to suspend many other medical services so that limited staff and resources could be devoted to emergency medical care," the ICRC said in a statement.

It also noted that Mekele was "quiet" on Sunday, the latest indication the TPLF opted to retreat rather than face government troops in a city that, before the conflict, had a population of half a million.

Ethiopian refugees in Sudan  where tens of thousands have fled the fighting in Tigray
Ethiopian refugees in Sudan, where tens of thousands have fled the fighting in Tigray
ASHRAF SHAZLY, AFP

Abiy announced on November 4 he was sending federal troops into Tigray in response to attacks by pro-TPLF forces on federal army camps.

The move marked a dramatic escalation of tensions between Abiy and the TPLF, which dominated Ethiopian politics for nearly three decades before anti-government protests swept Abiy to office in 2018.

After securing control of western Tigray and giving TPLF leaders a 72-hour ultimatum to surrender, Abiy announced on Thursday he had ordered a "final offensive" against pro-TPLF forces in Mekele.

- Fears of insurgency tactics -

Global concern had mounted over a possible bloodbath, and heavy shelling was reported in Mekele earlier Saturday.

But in the government's telling, little fighting actually occurred.

Scant news filtered out of Mekele on Sunday even through official channels.

A military spokesman, General Mohamed Tessema, told AFP that operations were proceeding "very well" and that soldiers were "doing their work peacefully", but said he could offer no details.

Elsewhere in Tigray, state television reported Sunday that graves containing more than 70 bodies had been discovered in the town of Humera, and quoted witnesses who claimed the victims were killed by pro-TPLF fighters.

Tigray regional television, for its part, claimed pro-TPLF forces had recaptured the towns of Axum and Mai-Tsebri from federal forces and had also shot down a government warplane.

Neither report could be independently corroborated.

The TPLF has vowed to fight on as long as pro-Abiy forces have any kind of presence in Tigray, and analysts have warned it could shift gears to adopt insurgency-style tactics.

A member of Tigray's forces outside Mekele pictured in September
A member of Tigray's forces outside Mekele pictured in September
EDUARDO SOTERAS, AFP/File

A top commander in the Tigray operations, Lieutenant General Bacha Debele, told state-affiliated media Sunday that the military was "ready to prevent any possible suicide attacks by the TPLF junta in the future".

Abiy had said police were working to apprehend the party leadership, who were not reachable Sunday, their whereabouts unknown.

Ever since Abiy took office, TPLF leaders have complained of being sidelined from top positions, targeted in corruption prosecutions and broadly scapegoated for the country's woes.

- Rockets strike Eritrea -

Hours after Abiy announced Mekele had fallen to federal forces, rockets were launched from Tigray targeting Asmara, the capital of neighbouring Eritrea, two diplomats told AFP.

The rockets appeared to be aimed at Asmara's airport and military installations, though it was unclear where they landed and what damage they might have caused.

The US embassy in Asmara reported that "six explosions" had occurred in the city "at about 10:13 pm" Saturday.

A map of Eritrea and Ethiopia locating Mekele
A map of Eritrea and Ethiopia locating Mekele
Jonathan WALTER, AFP

It marked the third time Asmara has come under fire from Tigray during the conflict.

The TPLF has claimed responsibility only for the first attack two weeks ago.

It said Asmara was a legitimate target because Ethiopia was enlisting Eritrean military support for its campaign in Tigray, which Ethiopia denies.

Abiy says his government is now focused on rebuilding Tigray and providing humanitarian assistance to the population of six million.

Displacement is believed to be widespread within the region, which has suffered multiple rounds of air strikes and at least one massacre that killed hundreds of civilians.

The United Nations has spent weeks lobbying -- so far unsuccessfully -- for full access.

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