Ethiopia said it had captured or killed most commanders of a rebellious northern force, while Tigray’s fugitive local leader countered on Friday that civilians were protesting against looting by occupying soldiers, Reuters informed.
Neither side gave proof for their assertions about the month-long war in the mountainous region bordering Eritrea where phone communications have been down and access severely restricted.
Fighting between Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s federal army and forces loyal to the region’s former ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), erupted on Nov. 4.
Thousands of people are believed to have died while more than 45,000 refugees have crossed to neighbouring Sudan.
TPLF leaders, who enjoy strong popular support in Tigray, appear to have fled to surrounding mountains and say they have begun a guerrilla-style resistance.
TPLF No. 1 Debretsion Gebremichael, one of the most wanted men in Ethiopia, told Reuters in a text message that there were protests in Mekelle, which is home to 500,000 people, due to looting by Eritrean soldiers.
“Eritrean soldiers are everywhere,” he said, repeating an accusation that President Isaias Afwerki has sent soldiers over the border to back Abiy against their mutual foe.
Both Ethiopia and Eritrea have denied that.
Ethiopia says the TPLF wants to internationalize the conflict as a way to force the government, which appears to hold all the major towns, into international mediation.
Debretsion, a 57-year-old former guerrilla radio operator, gave no evidence of looting or the presence of Eritreans. A diplomatic source shared a picture of a road covered in stones, which he said was sent from a resident of Mekelle, but it was unclear where or when the picture was shot.
On Wednesday, state TV showed images of people shopping and sitting on stools in Mekelle city. But there have been no images of security forces interacting with residents.
Abiy’s spokeswoman Billene Seyoum said she would not comment on unverifiable text messages.
A senior military commander, General Tesfaye Ayalew, said “almost all of the enemy”, including former federal colonels and generals who fought on the Tigrayan side, were defeated or dead. “But the ones who made the plans and the criminals are still on the run and hiding,” he told state-affiliated Fana TV.