An Ethiopian government spokesman said Wednesday that the Ethiopian army could reenter Tigray’s regional capital of Mekelle within weeks, if necessary.
Redwan Hussein, spokesman for Ethiopia's task force for Tigray, made the announcement to reporters in the government’s first public remarks since the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) seized control of Mekelle earlier this week.
“If it is required, we can easily enter to Mekelle, and we can enter in less than three weeks,” Redwan said.
The Ethiopian government announced a cease-fire on state media late Monday, saying it would take effect immediately after nearly eight months of conflict in the region and as troops of Tigray’s former governing party entered Mekelle, prompting cheers from residents.
However, Tigray forces spokesman Getachew Reda said in an interview with The Associated Press on Wednesday that the cease-fire was a “sick joke” and promised to push out Ethiopian and Eritrean forces.
Getachew said Ethiopian troops were still battling to recapture territory and that Eritrean forces continued to control a “significant part” of the area.
Getachew also told AP that the TPLF would not negotiate with Ethiopia until vital services such as communications and transportation, which were damaged or destroyed in the war, were restored.
“We have to make sure that every inch of our territory is returned to us, the rightful owners," Getachew said.
Rebels in Ethiopia’s Tigray region warned Tuesday that their troops would seek to destroy the capabilities of Ethiopian and Eritrean forces, despite the Ethiopian government’s unilateral cease-fire.
Later Tuesday, a senior member of Tigray's regional government told The New York Times that Tigray’s leadership was committed to “weaken or destroy” the capabilities of the Ethiopian and Eritrean armies “wherever they are.”
But during the Ethiopian government’s news conference in Addis Ababa on Wednesday, Lieutenant General Bacha Debele warned that troops could quickly return.
“If they try to provoke, our response will be huge, and it will be more than the previous one,” said Bacha, who added that the pullout was meant to “give relief” to residents.
At a U.S. congressional hearing Tuesday on the conflict, Sarah Charles of the U.S. Agency for International Development told lawmakers the “U.S. believes famine is likely already occurring” in the region. She said the U.S. estimated that between 3.5 million and 4.5 million people needed “urgent humanitarian food assistance” and that up to 900,000 of them were “already experiencing catastrophic conditions.”
State Department official Robert Godec said at the hearing that Eritrea “should anticipate further actions” if the announced cease-fire did 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 said the nearly eight-month-old conflict in Tigray has pushed 350,000 people to the brink of famine and that 5 million others need immediate food aid. The famine is the world's worst in a decade, the U.N. said.
Ethiopia and authorities on the scene have been accused of blocking deliveries of aid, also endangering the lives of more than 1 million Tigrayans who live in remote areas.
Significant loss, meetings urged
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 had yet been fixed for the meeting, and it had not been decided whether it would be a public or private session.
On Monday, the U.N. children’s agency said Ethiopian soldiers had 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 intensified last week after a military airstrike on a town north of Mekelle killed more than 60 people.
World Health Organization 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.
Judd Devermont, director of the Africa program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, told VOA the loss of Mekelle was one of several reasons the Ethiopian government announced the cease-fire after resisting months of global pressure.
“That was a pretty significant defeat for the Ethiopians and probably a further sign that they were not winning the war. So, I think that compelled them to ask for a pause or to call for a pause for a cease-fire,” he said.
Other factors are the loss of global financial support, sanctions from the European Union and the U.S., a weakening economy and issues with elections, Devermont said.
Marina Ottaway, a political scientist with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars based in Washington, echoed Devermont’s assessment of Ethiopia’s economy.
“It’s still a very poor country, don’t misunderstand me. But there were clear signs of improvement, of new policies, of new directions … and now, it’s back to square one,” Ottaway said in an interview with VOA.
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, Margaret Besheer, Katherine Gypson and Jesse Oni contributed to this report, which also includes information from The Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse.