Rebels in Ethiopia’s embattled Tigray region warned Tuesday their troops would seek to destroy the capabilities of Ethiopian and Eritrean forces, despite the Ethiopian government’s declaration of a unilateral cease-fire in the region.
The Ethiopian government announced the cease-fire on state media late Monday, saying it would take effect immediately.
The announcement came after nearly eight months of conflict in the region and as troops of Tigray’s former governing party entered the regional capital, Mekelle, prompting cheers from residents.
A spokesman for the Tigrayan forces battling Ethiopia's government warned Tuesday in an interview with Reuters the rebel Tigray Defense Forces would enter neighboring Eritrea and Ethiopia's Amhara region to pursue "enemy" forces if necessary.
Later Tuesday, a senior member of Tigray's regional government told The New York Times that Tigray’s leadership committed to “weaken or destroy” the capabilities of the Ethiopian and Eritrean armies “wherever they are.”
U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price issued a written statement late Tuesday saying the cease-fire “could be a positive step if it results in changes on the ground to end the conflict, stop the atrocities, and allow unhindered humanitarian assistance.”
Price said the United States is calling for “the immediate, verifiable withdrawal of all Eritrean forces from Ethiopian territory,” which he said is a necessary step for “an effective, sustainable cease-fire and in accordance with the Ethiopian government’s March commitment to do so.”
VOA journalists in Mekelle said they have not seen government soldiers in the city since Sunday.
Rebel troops from the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which previously governed the region, announced on the party radio that their forces had entered Mekelle.
“We are 100% in control of Mekelle,” Getachew Reda, a TPLF spokesperson, told Reuters on Tuesday.
Clashes that occurred on the outskirts of Mekelle have since ended, Reda said.
“Our forces are still in hot pursuit to south, east, to continue until every square inch of territory is cleared from the enemy,” he said.
Reuters reported that it could not independently confirm that the TPLF was in full control of the capital.
Agence France-Presse reports the TPLF launched a major offensive last week and cited an interim government official Monday who said the fighters were closing in on the city when government troops left.
Monday’s developments come after the Tigray interim administration, appointed by the federal government, called for a cease-fire to allow aid to be delivered to thousands of people facing famine in the region.
At a U.S. congressional hearing Tuesday on the conflict, U.S. Agency for International Development Administrators Sarah Charles told lawmakers the “U.S. believes famine is likely already occurring” in the region. She said the U.S. estimates between 3.5 to 4.5 million people need “urgent humanitarian food assistance” and that up to 900,000 of them are “already experiencing catastrophic conditions.”
WATCH: US response to cease-fire
State Department official Robert Godec said at the hearing that Eritrea “should anticipate further actions” if the announced ceasefire does not improve the situation in the region. “We will not stand by in the face of horrors in Tigray,” Godec said.
An Ethiopian government statement carried by state media said the cease-fire would allow farmers to till their land and aid groups to operate without the presence of military troops. It said the cease-fire would last until the end of the farming season but did not give a specific date. The country’s main planting season lasts through September.
The United Nations says the nearly 8-month-old conflict in Tigray has pushed 350,000 people to the brink of famine, calling it the world’s worst famine crisis in a decade.
Several U.N. Security Council members, including the United States, Britain and Ireland, have called for an urgent public meeting to discuss the developments. Diplomats said no date has yet been fixed for the meeting, and it had not been decided whether it would be a public or private session.
On Monday, the United Nations children’s agency said Ethiopian soldiers entered its office in Mekelle and dismantled satellite communications equipment.
UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore said in a statement “This act violates U.N. privileges and immunities … We are not, and should never be, a target.”
Violence in the Tigray region had intensified last week after a military airstrike on a town north of Mekelle killed more than 60 people.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus accused Ethiopian authorities of blocking ambulances from reaching victims of the strike.
An Ethiopian military spokesman said only combatants, not civilians, were hit in the strike.
Fighting between the Ethiopian government and the TPLF broke out in November, leaving thousands of civilians dead and forcing more than 2 million people from their homes. Troops from Eritrea, Ethiopia’s neighbor to the north, and Amhara, a neighboring region to the south of Tigray, also entered the conflict in support of the Ethiopian government.
VOA’s Horn of Africa Service contributed to this report.
This report contains information from the Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse.