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Ethiopia’s Abiy vows victory, as army fights Tigrayan rebels for key town

Over the past two weeks, Ethiopia's air force has carried out a string of aerial bombardments in Tigray.

(AFP) — Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed on Monday vowed to keep fighting until victory in the year-long war in his country's north, as rebels claimed to have seized another key town.

Reports of rebels capturing Kombolcha came a day after they claimed control of Dessie, another strategic city, and if confirmed would mark a major advance by the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF).

Much of northern Ethiopia is under a communications blackout, and access for journalists is restricted, making battlefield claims difficult to verify independently.

Residents in Kombolcha, a town on the main highway to Addis Ababa, described non-stop gunfire overnight and into the early hours on Monday. Some reported hearing what sounded like an air strike on the town's outskirts around midnight but the government denied any such raid.

The fierce fighting, just 375 kilometres (235 miles) north of the Ethiopian capital, has  renewed calls by western powers for an immediate ceasefire and a negotiated truce.

But Abiy, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019, said he believed victory was possible and urged his countrymen to unify and join the fight.

"We will repel them with full force," Abiy said in a statement late on Monday to government officials that was televised by state-affiliated Fana Broadcasting Corporate.

"The challenges are many... but I can tell you for sure, without a doubt, we will score a comprehensive victory."

Earlier, he said "dying for Ethiopia is a duty (for) all of us" and urged citizens to take up any weapon available against the TPLF.

Abiy sent troops into Tigray in November 2020 in response to what he said was attacks on army camps by the TPLF, and promised a swift operation.

But by late June the rebels had regrouped and retaken most of Tigray, and fighting spread to the neighbouring regions of Afar and Amhara, where Dessie and Kombolcha lie. 

– ‘Deadly siege’ –

The government on Monday accused the TPLF of having "summarily executed more than 100 youth residents of Kombolcha", but provided no details about the killings.

"The international community should not turn (a) blind eye to such atrocities," it said.

TPLF spokesman Getachew Reda dismissed these claims as "absolutely false" and said there was no ongoing fighting in Dessie and Kombolcha.

"His (Abiy's) forces are nowhere near & his generals are stampeding to make it to Addis," Getachew said on Twitter.

AFP was unable to reach anyone in Dessie, where heavy fighting was reported on Sunday.

Residents had earlier reported a heavy military build-up in the area, as civilians fleeing conflict-hit towns further north poured into Dessie seeking refuge.

As of September, Amhara authorities estimated that at least 233,000 people fleeing the rebel advance had found refuge in Dessie and Kombolcha.

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, US ambassador to the UN, said a truce was the only path to stopping the bloodshed and civilian suffering across northern Ethiopia.

"All parties must begin ceasefire negotiations without preconditions," she said on Twitter late on Monday.

Earlier, referring to reports of the TPLF takeover of Dessie and Kombolcha, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeted: "Continued fighting prolongs the dire humanitarian crisis in northern Ethiopia."

The rebels' offensive in the towns north of Addis Ababa has fuelled speculation that the TPLF was approaching Ethiopia's capital.

The TPLF, which dominated national politics for three decades until 2018, has stated it has no "other motive than breaking the deadly siege" on Tigray, which is in the throes of a severe humanitarian crisis.

– ‘Survival campaign’ –

The Amhara administration on Sunday ordered all government institutions to suspend regular services and divert their budgets to "the survival campaign".

Elsewhere in Amhara, rebels from the Oromo Liberation Army -- who are allied with the TPLF -- announced on Sunday that they had captured the town of Kemissie, south of Kombolcha and on a major highway to Addis Ababa.

Residents in Kemissie told AFP on Monday evening that the town appeared to be in government control, but reported sporadic gunfire and panic.

"There is a state of emergency and no one is allowed out past 7 pm, but people are fleeing south" while others were arriving from conflict-hit regions to the north, said Hassan, a teacher in Kemissie.

The war has spiralled into a prolonged war marked by massacres, mass rapes and a humanitarian crisis.

An estimated 400,000 people have been pushed to the brink of famine, with Tigray under a de facto aid blockade, according to the UN.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said Monday it was critical fighting ended immediately and the humanitarian blockade be lifted.

Over the past two weeks, Ethiopia's air force has carried out a string of aerial bombardments in Tigray. Control of the skies, along with superior manpower, is one of the few remaining areas where the government holds a military advantage over the rebels.

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© Agence France-Presse

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