The government started “heavily” bombarding the city of Mekele, where the Tigray People’s Liberation Front has its headquarters, according to Tigray TV.
A senior official announced Thursday that the military was beginning the “final phase” of its offensive to take control of the region, Reuters reported.
Lt. Gen. Hassan Ibrahim said the government would regain control of Mekele “in a few days.”
“The Ethiopian National Defense forces have now been directed to conclude the third and final phase of our rule of law operation,” said the statement from the prime minister’s office. “We call on the people of Mekele and its environs to disarm, stay at home and stay away from military targets, and take all necessary precautions.”
Prior to the assault, the government warned residents that there would be “no mercy” if they remained near the TPLF leadership. Billene Seyoum, a spokeswoman for the prime minister’s office, however, said that the forces would not “bombard” civilian areas, according to Al Jazeera.
“The safety of Ethiopians in Mekele and Tigray region continues as priority for the federal government,” the statement read.
Ethiopian forces “started hitting with heavy weaponry and artillery the center of Mekelle,” the local government said in a statement to Tigrayan media.
The shelling started midday on Saturday, with local television suddenly going static. A humanitarian official reported that no one could see federal forces as the attack commenced.
The conflict already raised humanitarian concerns, with around 40,000 people having already fled the area prior to the military closing in.
Communications in the region remain largely severed, making it difficult for outside agencies to verify much of what has happened.
The conflict began with an attack on Nov. 3 when TPLF forces reportedly attacked a military base. One day later, Ahmed announced an offensive against the rebel forces.
Humanitarians claim that at least hundreds of people have been killed; others worry that the offensive could trigger indiscriminate violence.
President-elect Joe Biden’s national security adviser nominee, Jake Sullivan, is among the concerned parties, asking that both sides initiate a dialogue through the African Union.
“I’m deeply concerned about the risk of violence against civilians, including potential war crimes, in the fighting around Mekelle in Ethiopia,” Sullivan tweeted.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has reportedly refused a dialogue with the TPLF, with each group considering the other to be illegal.
“The last peaceful gate which had remained open for the TPLF clique to walk through has now been firmly closed as a result of TPLF’s contempt for the people of Ethiopia,” the government statement added.