Ethiopia pushes toward Tigray capital, rebuffs African mediation

The Ethiopian government said on Saturday its forces had seized another town in their advance on the rebel-held capital of northern Tigray region, and rebuffed an African diplomatic push to mediate.

More than two weeks into Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s offensive, his government said Tigrayan forces were digging in and using bulldozers to plough up roads around the regional capital Mekelle, home to about half a million people.

Hundreds, possibly thousands, have died and more than 30,000 refugees have fled to Sudan. The conflict has spread beyond Tigray, whose forces have fired rockets at the neighbouring Amhara region and the nation of Eritrea, spurring concern of a wider war and the splintering of multi-ethnic Ethiopia.

Abiy’s government has said it will soon reach Mekelle after taking various surrounding towns. On Saturday it said Adigrat had also fallen, about 116 km (72 miles) north of Mekelle.

The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) rebels said nine civilians had died in artillery hits on Adigrat where it accused Eritrea of backing the Ethiopian army.

The army of Abiy and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki “inflicted heavy casualties on innocent civilians in Adigrat,” the TPLF’s communications bureau said in a statement on Facebook.

The government and military could not immediately be reached for comment, but have previously repeatedly denied targeting civilians, saying they strike only TPLF targets.

Assertions on all sides are hard to verify because phone lines and internet have been down since the beginning of the conflict on Nov. 4 and media are largely barred.

Eritrea denies TPLF allegations of sending soldiers over the border to back Abiy’s offensive against the Tigrayan forces, who are also an old foe of Eritrea’s.

Refugees and rights group Amnesty International have also recounted civilian deaths, though Reuters has been unable to verify those reports.

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