Ethiopian refugees who fled the fighting in Tigray Region are pictured at a border reception centre (Village 8) in Gedaref…
Ethiopian refugees who fled the fighting in Tigray Region at a border reception center in Gedaref State, eastern Sudan, Nov. 26, 2020. More than 40,000 refugees crossed from Ethiopia into Sudan since the conflict broke out on Nov. 4.

Fearing an imminent assault, people are fleeing Mekele, the capital of Ethiopia's Tigray region, after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's order for the "final phase" of the military offensive aganist local forces.

Abiy warned Mekele residents Thursday to disarm and stay inside as  military units were ordered in. His government, however, has declared it would protect civilians.

"The last peaceful gate which had remained open for the TPLF clique to walk through have now been firmly closed as a result of TPLF's contempt for the people of Ethiopia," Abiy said in a statement Thursday, referring to the Tigray People's Liberation Front.

Earlier this week, Abiy gave the TPLF 72 hours to surrender or face a military offensive on the state's capital of Mekele.

In the meantime, food and other items are running in short supply in the Tigray region of 6 million people. The United Nations has called for immediate access for humanitarian aid that is neutral and impartial.

Abiy's government has said a "humanitarian access route" would become available, managed by Ethiopia's Ministry of Peace.

The Ethiopian army has been battling local forces in Tigray since November 4, when Abiy sent the national defense force into the area, after accusing local forces of attacking a military base there.

Hundreds of people have been killed and more than 40,000 have fled to neighboring Sudan, recounting horrific tales of violence.

The conflict has raised alarm from rights organizations and the United Nations, which have urged Abiy to seek a diplomatic solution to the problem, noting the harm faced by civilians already victims of a weak economy and the coronavirus pandemic.

But Abiy thus far has rejected all calls for dialogue with Tigray leaders.