Forces in Ethiopia's northern Tigray region have released about 1,000 government soldiers captured during recent fighting, the head of its ruling party said, as both sides prepared for a showdown over contested land in the west of the region.
Debretsion Gebremichael, leader of the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), told Reuters by satellite phone late Friday they have released 1,000 low-ranking soldiers. "More than 5,000 [soldiers] are still with us, and we will keep the senior officers who will face trial," he said.
He said the soldiers had been driven to Tigray's southern border with the Amhara region on Friday, but he did not say who received them or how the release was negotiated.
Reuters could not independently confirm his account. A military spokesman said he was not immediately available to comment Saturday, and the spokesman for the Amhara regional administration said he had no information on the release.
Officials in Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's office and a government taskforce on Tigray did not answer calls seeking comment.
Fighting broke out in Tigray in November when the government accused the TPLF of attacking military bases across the region, which the party denied. The government declared victory three weeks later when it took control of the regional capital, Mekelle, but the TPLF kept fighting.
In a dramatic turn, the TPLF retook Mekelle and most of Tigray at the end of June, after the government pulled out its soldiers and declared a unilateral cease-fire.
The TPLF vowed to keep fighting, however, until it had regained control of disputed territory in the south and west of Tigray that was seized during the fighting by the government's allies from Amhara.
Abiy said this week that the military would repel any TPLF threat, effectively abandoning the self-declared truce. Amhara and three other regions said they were mobilizing forces to support the national army in its fight against the TPLF.
Thousands of people have died in the fighting; around 2 million have been displaced and more than 5 million rely on emergency food aid.
On Friday, Ethiopia's foreign ministry issued a statement accusing aid groups of arming rebels.
"Some aid agencies have been actively engaged in a destructive role. We have also confirmed that they have been using aid as a cover and are arming the rebel groups to prolong the conflicts," it said.
The statement did not identify the groups and there was no immediate response from the agencies that operate in Tigray. The United Nations humanitarian organization OCHA did not respond to a request for comment.
The U.N. has said desperately needed aid is being blocked at checkpoints as convoys travel through government-held territory. Ethiopian authorities say the aid needs to be checked.