The UN has also expressed concerns about the lack of access to the region for humanitarian workers.
The Ethiopian authorities on Thursday said that “a humanitarian access route” overseen by the government will be opened up, adding that they were “committed to work with UN agencies… to protect civilians and those who need it”.
Mr Abiy’s announcement on the military operation came after a deadline he gave for Tigray fighters to surrender passed on Wednesday.
Hundreds of people have reportedly been killed and thousands have been forced from their homes as Ethiopian forces have seized various towns in Tigray from the TPLF.
Details of the fighting are hard to confirm because all phone, mobile and internet communications with the Tigray region have been cut. Three African Union representatives have arrived in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa to try to broker talks but Ethiopia has so far rejected all mediation attempts, saying the conflict is an internal matter and Mr Abiy’s government is engaged in a law enforcement mission in Tigray.
The three envoys will not be allowed to travel to Tigray.
Also on Thursday, Ethiopian troops were deployed along the Tigray region’s border with Sudan, where they prevented people fleeing the violence from leaving the country, according to refugees.
The BBC’s Anne Soy, on the Sudanese side of the border, saw at least a dozen members of the Ethiopian military, leading to a marked decrease in the number of people crossing into Sudan.
More than 40,000 people have fled Ethiopia since the conflict began.
It is not clear what that strategy is but it will not be easy to carry it out, particularly if there’s active fighting in the city. Artillery attacks, as were suggested by an army official last week, and airstrikes are particularly difficult to conduct without killing civilians and destroying civilian infrastructure.
The federal government’s troops could be met with a sort of guerrilla warfare from the area outside Mekelle.
And it could also take longer than the government would like to conclude the offensive. That could mean a worsening of the humanitarian crisis and consequently more international pressure. The leader of the powerful regional party, Debretsion Gebremichael, has said Tigray forces are “ready to die in defence of our right to administer our region”.
The TPLF fighters, drawn mostly from a paramilitary unit and a well-drilled local militia, are thought to number about 250,000. Some analysts fear that the situation could turn into a guerrilla conflict – with the TPLF continuing to mount attacks on government forces even if they take Mekelle. The conflict is rooted in longstanding tension between Ethiopia’s central government and the TPLF, which was the dominant political force in the whole country until Mr Abiy came to power in 2018 and introduced a series of far-reaching reforms.
When Mr Abiy postponed a national election because of coronavirus in June, relations further deteriorated.
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