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    Tigray rebels gain more ground, vow to drive out ‘enemies’

    ADDIS ABABA (AFP) – Rebel fighters in Ethiopia’s war-hit Tigray seized control of more territory on Tuesday, one day after retaking the local capital and vowing to drive all “enemies” out of the region.

    The rebels’ gains and militant rhetoric cast doubt on whether a unilateral ceasefire declared on Monday by the federal government would actually lead to a pause in the nearly eight-month-old conflict that has killed thousands of people and pushed hundreds of thousands to the brink of famine.

    Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, sent troops into Tigray last November to oust the northern region’s former ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).

    He said the move came in response to TPLF attacks on federal army camps, and promised that victory would be swift.

    But on Monday his military suffered a dramatic reversal when rebels known as the Tigray Defence Forces (TDF) reclaimed the regional capital Mekele, only about a week after launching a major counter-offensive. They followed that on Tuesday by entering the town of Shire, about 140 kilometres northwest of Mekele, according to a United Nations (UN) security source and a security assessment document seen by AFP.

    A woman walks past Ethiopian government soldiers by the side of a road north of Mekele, in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia. PHOTO: AP

    The news has prompted street celebrations in multiple locations as federal soldiers, their Eritrean allies and members of an Abiy-appointed interim regional government have fled their posts.

    A statement overnight from Tigray’s pre-war government hailed the TDF advances and called for its fighters to press further.

    “The government of Tigray calls upon our people and army of Tigray to intensify their struggle until our enemies completely leave Tigray,” it said.

    The International Crisis Group, a conflict prevention organisation, said Tuesday the TDF was “now in control of most of the region, including major towns”.

    It achieved these gains “mainly through mass popular support and capturing arms and supplies from adversaries,” said senior analyst William Davison.

    Communications were cut throughout Tigray on Tuesday, making it difficult to verify reports of troop movements.

    But by Tuesday afternoon UN officials had confirmed TDF forces were in Shire.

    “The population has taken to the streets in droves. Huge crowds line the main routes and movement is somewhat difficult,” a UN security assessment document said.

    Getachew Reda, a spokesman for Tigrayan forces, told AFP on Tuesday evening they were prepared to chase their opponents well beyond Tigray – even as far as the capitals of Ethiopia and neighbouring Eritrea, which has allied itself with Abiy.

    “We’ll do whatever it takes to secure Tigray. If marching to Asmara is what it takes to secure Tigray, we will do it. If marching to Addis is what it takes to secure Tigray, we will do it,” Getachew told AFP.

    “Nothing is off the table.”

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