Turning point in Ethiopian war as Tigrayan troops retake regional capital

The war in Ethiopia was upended on Monday as Tigrayan troops retook the capital of the devastated region as part of an offensive that has sent federal government forces into an unprecedented retreat.

Residents danced and fireworks were set off in the streets of Mekelle as the Tigrayan Defence Force, which fled the mountains when the city was invaded seven months ago, returned in triumph.

Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning leader, has been blamed for starting a brutal war with the local government of Tigray, who ruled the entire country for much of the past 30 years.

On Monday, the interim government he had set up in Mekelle was forced to sue for peace, with ministers and soldiers deserting their posts.

"I am crying with joy. We were waiting for them. This is just a big day,” said Yohannes Mehari, a resident of Mekelle who was among half a dozen who confirmed the TDF’s advance.

“We are welcoming TDF troops. I am so happy,” added Kibrom Melese.

Government forces had already fled by the time the TDF entered the city in the afternoon.

“There was no fighting. The city was quiet. The soldiers of Abiy have already fled a few days ago,” Kidane Welday, another resident, said.

Getachew Reda, a spokesperson for the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, told Reuters that the TDF were in command of the city.

People who were injured in an air strike on a village market receive medical treatment in Mekelle

Credit: AFP

General Yohannes Gebremeskel, commander of Ethiopian troops in Tigray, did not respond to The Telegraph’s queries on the matter.

Ethiopian troops stationed in the city initially retreated eastwards to Mekelle’s airport located on the city’s outskirts before vacating the area altogether.

Shortly after Mekelle’s recapture, Abraham Belay, the region’s interim administrator who speaks on behalf of Mr Ahmed, went on Ethiopian state television to announce that his government had put in place a unilateral ceasefire for “humanitarian reasons”.

The news of the victory will send shockwaves through Africa and comes after a slew of TDF victories over Ethiopian and Eritrean forces in the past fortnight, during which hundreds if not thousands of Ethiopian soldiers surrendered.

Sources in the Tigrayan resistance told The Telegraph a week ago that the TDF were within striking distance of the capital of 500,000. On Thursday, Tigrayan forces wrestled back control of the town of Wukro, 47km north of Mekelle.

Northern Ethiopia has been wracked by a horrific civil war since Mr Ahmed and Isaias Afwerki, Eritrea’s totalitarian dictator, joined forces to crush the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in a pincer movement.  

The war has left tens of thousands dead and millions on the brink of starvation. The two militaries ousted the then Tigrayan regional government from the capital in late November after surrounding the city with heavy artillery.

Since then, the ousted Tigrayans have waged a guerilla war against the coalition’s troops.

Eritrean and Ethiopian forces stand accused of committed an array of atrocities in the region, including a systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing, gang rape, massacres, enforced starvation and the indiscriminate bombardment of civilian areas.

Last week, Ethiopia’s air force carried out a bombing of a crowded village market, reportedly killing at least 64 civilians.
As the Tigrayan troops advanced on the city, there was reportedly a wave of looting and other criminal activity.

UNICEF released a statement on Monday saying that the members of the Ethiopian National Defence Forces forced their way into their offices and disabled their satellite equipment.

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