The recapture of the city by Tigrayan fighters and the retreat of Ethiopian government forces on Monday marked a stunning turning point in the country’s devastating eight-month civil war.
In the wake of Mekele’s capture, the Ethiopian government announced a unilateral ceasefire for several months. But Tigrayan’s forces categorically ruled out a truce on Tuesday, and a spokesman for the region’s ruling party said its forces would not calm down until the Ethiopian army and allied forces leave the entire region.
“We are not a party to such humor and we will not be part of it,” Getachew Reda, a spokesman for the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, said in a phone interview in response to the government’s proposal.
“The capital is firmly in the hands of our forces,” he said, adding that clashes with the Ethiopian army are continuing on Tuesday, 30 kilometers east of the capital.
The Ethiopian army has controlled much of Tigray since last November, when it launched a major offensive in the area with the support of Eritrean soldiers and local ethnic militias in a bid to remove the Tigray Liberation Front from power. The operation began after Abe accused the TPLF of attacking a federal military base in Mekele, and after the Tigrayan leaders made a unilateral decision to elect a regional administration.
The military wing of the Tigray Liberation Front, known as the Tigray Defense Forces, was steadily preparing to attack and in recent days began a coordinated campaign to retake Mikkeli.
The Tigrayan counterattack was a major blow to Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who declared victory in late November last year when the Ethiopian army took control of the city of half a million people.
Since then, the clashes have deteriorated into a protracted conflict that bears, by many accounts, the hallmarks of genocide. The ongoing war has left thousands dead, forced millions to flee, fueled famine and badly damaged the international reputation of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Ethiopian leader.
News of TDF’s advance to Mikkeli on Monday greeted with massive celebrations in the city, prompting thousands to take to the streets and set off fireworks into the night. CNN spoke with residents who welcomed the end of the government’s occupation, cheering as they watched Tigrayan trucks drive through the capital.
But on Tuesday, phone and internet services were disrupted in Mikkeli and CNN was unable to reach contacts there.
A UN official, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to fear of reprisals from the Ethiopian government, told CNN that lines of communication had been cut for some time after Tigrayan fighters captured the city. The official said their office in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa had not been able to reach the field teams in Mekele since early Tuesday morning.
The TPLF blamed the government for the power outage, but CNN could not confirm who was responsible.
Throughout the conflict, the Ethiopian government has restricted information in and out of Tigray, imposed a widespread communications blackout, severely restricted access to journalists and obstructed humanitarian aid.
The Ethiopian government did not respond to CNN’s multiple requests for comment on the sudden withdrawal of the Ethiopian National Defense Forces from Mekele. It issued an immediate and unilateral ceasefire in the area on Monday night following a request from the Federally Appointed Interim Government of Tigray.
Witnesses in Mekele told CNN that Ethiopian soldiers were seen entering banks, media offices and humanitarian agency offices before leaving the city on Monday. A UN official told CNN that Ethiopian forces raided the offices of UNICEF and the World Food Program. UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore condemned the act “in the strongest terms”.
International monitors, humanitarian workers, doctors and refugees have accused the government and allied forces, including Eritrean soldiers, of committing a range of horrific atrocities in Tigray, including massacres, sexual violence and ethnic cleansing.
Abiy had hoped last week’s national and regional elections – a vote he described as “witnessing the atmosphere of democracy,” even though millions of Ethiopians were unable to vote – would serve as a distraction from international criticism of the war in Tigray.
At least 30 people were killed in the raid on a crowded market in the small town of Togoga, west of Mekele, witnesses and medics told CNN, as fighting intensified between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front and forces allied with the Ethiopian army.
In the wake of the raid, Tigray’s military spokesman, Gebre Gebritsadekan, said the Self-Defense Forces shot down an Ethiopian Air Force plane, as part of a renewed offensive against the Ethiopian army. The Ethiopian military spokesman denied shooting down the plane, blaming technical problems for the crash.
When asked by CNN whether the attack was exposing civilians to further harm, Jabri said, “We have to protect our people. We cannot stand idly by and watch them slaughter.”
Now that the Tigrayans seem to have wrested control of Mekele and the surrounding area, what comes next in the conflict is unclear.
The State Department recently announced visa restrictions for Ethiopian and Eritrean government officials, and the Biden administration has imposed widespread restrictions on economic assistance to the country.
But it is not clear whether efforts by the United States and other countries to coerce Ethiopia have made much difference.
The US mission to the United Nations called an open meeting of the UN Security Council on Friday to discuss the situation in Ethiopia.
CNN’s Elisa Mackintosh and Vasco Cutovio write and report from London. Bethlehem Fikile reported from Nairobi. CNN’s Nima El-Baqer, Katie Polglass, and Gianluca Mezzovori contributed to this report.