Children play in front of a hotel damaged by mortar shelling, in Humera, Ethiopia, on November 22, 2020. - Prime Minister Abiy…
Children play in front of a hotel damaged by mortar shelling, in Humera, in the Tigray region, Ethiopia, November 22, 2020.

International rights groups are urging Ethiopian forces to prioritize the safety of civilians in the Tigray region, as a government-set deadline for regional forces to surrender looms.
 
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has given the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, or TPLF, until Wednesday to surrender or face a military assault on the city of Mekele.  
 
The prime minister also warned civilians his military would have “no mercy” on them if they do not move away before the deadline, a development some rights groups and diplomats contend would violate international law.  
 
Ethiopia’s military said Monday it had encircled Mekele at a distance of about 50 kilometers. TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael denied that was the case and said the military was trying to cover up defeats.
 
Communications blackouts have made verifying information during three weeks of fighting difficult.

FILE - Prime Minister of Ethiopia Abiy Ahmed stands during an event honoring the national defense forces, in Addis Ababa, Nov. 17, 2020.
Ethiopia's Abiy Gives Tigray Region 72-Hour Ultimatum
Ethiopia’s prime minister has threatened a military offensive unless regional forces surrender

The central government launched its operation after accusing the TPLF of ambushing a military base. A dispute over elections, with Abiy delaying voting due to the coronavirus pandemic and the Tigray region going ahead with its own vote, added to the tensions.  The conflict has left hundreds of people dead.
 
“As Ethiopian federal troops begin preparations to encircle Mekele, Amnesty International reminds all parties that deliberately attacking civilians and civilian objects is prohibited under international humanitarian law, and constitutes war crimes,” Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s director for East and Southern Africa, said in a statement Monday.   
 
The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission accused a Tigrayan youth group called Samri on Tuesday of killing at least 600 civilian members of the minority Amhara and Welkait ethnic groups.  
 
The accusation appeared in the rights group’s published findings into a November 9 attack in the southwestern part of Tigray state that was first reported by Amnesty International. 

FILE - Ethiopian refugees who fled fighting in Tigray province lie in a hut at the Um Rakuba camp in Sudan's eastern Gedaref province, Nov. 18, 2020.

The Tigray People’s Liberation Front did not immediately comment, but it has previously denied any involvement.
 
The fighting has spilled over into Eritrea, which the Tigrayans attacked with rockets. The conflict has also affected Somalia, where Ethiopia disarmed several hundred Tigrayan members of a peacekeeping force that were fighting militants linked with al-Qaida.
 
The United Nations said Monday that more than 40,000 people have fled Tigray to neighboring Sudan and echoed calls to preserve the safety of civilians.  
 
Hours after the U.N.’s appeal, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees issued a statement “calling on all parties of the conflict to comply with their international obligations to protect civilians. We reiterate our call for free, safe and unhindered humanitarian access so that humanitarian assistance can reach people that rely on it.”
 
The U.N. Security Council was scheduled to hold talks about the nearly 3-week-old conflict between Ethiopia and Tigray later Tuesday, but VOA has learned the negotiations have been postponed.  
 
Margaret Besheer contributed to this story.