Ethiopia's prime minister said Thursday the army has been ordered to move on the embattled Tigray regional capital after his 72-hour ultimatum ended for Tigray leaders to surrender, and he warned its half-million residents to stay indoors and disarm.
The military offensive "has reached its final stage" after three weeks of fighting, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's office said. That means tanks and other weaponry can close in on Mekele, whose residents had been warned of "no mercy" if they didn't move away from Tigray leaders in time.
That caused international alarm as rights groups said such wording could violate international law and put civilians in further danger.
Abiy's statement asserted that thousands of Tigray militia and special forces surrendered during the 72-hour period that ended Wednesday evening.
"We will take utmost care to protect civilians," the statement said.
The United Nations has reported people fleeing the city, but communications and transport links remain severed to Tigray, and it's not clear how many people in Mekele received the warnings in time. Tigray regional leaders couldn't immediately be reached.
The international community is pleading for immediate de-escalation, dialogue and humanitarian access as Ethiopian forces have fought their way through Tigray to Mekele. But Abiy, last year's Nobel Peace Prize winner, however, has rejected international "interference." His government has said three high-level African Union envoys for the conflict can meet with Abiy, but not with the Tigray leaders.
It remains difficult to verify claims in the fighting that erupted Nov. 4 between Ethiopian forces and the heavily armed forces of the Tigray People's Liberation Front, which once dominated Ethiopia's government but has been sidelined under Abiy's rule. The two governments now regard each other as illegal.
The U.N. now says shortages have become "very critical" in the Tigray region as its population of 6 million remains sealed off.
Fuel and cash are running out, more than 1 million people are now estimated to be displaced and food for nearly 100,000 refugees from Eritrea will be gone in a week, according to its update released overnight. And more than 600,000 people who rely on monthly food rations haven't received them this month.
Travel blockages are so dire that even within Mekele the U.N. World Food Program cannot obtain access to transport food from its warehouses there.
A statement this week from a civil society representative in the region, seen by The Associated Press, described heavy bombardment of communities elsewhere that has kept many residents from fleeing.
Other people are frantically moving within the Tigray region from one district to another and "living within church compounds, streets, schools, health centers," the statement warned, and it pleaded for a safe corridor to ship in aid as food runs out.
Human Rights Watch is warning that "actions that deliberately impede relief supplies" violate international humanitarian law, and that the complete shutdown of communications "could amount to a form of collective punishment by imposing penalties on people without a clear lawful basis."
Another crisis is unfolding as more than 40,000 Ethiopian refugees have fled into a remote area of Sudan, where humanitarian groups and local communities struggle to feed, treat and shelter them. Nearly half the refugees are children under 18. Many fled with nothing.
"When it is cold, it hurts so much," said one wounded refugee, Alam Kafa. "At night, I have to wrap tightly with a blanket so I can sleep. But I don't sleep at night."
"Just to imagine for everything, literally for everything, starting from your food, ending with your water drinking, ending just to go for the toilet facilities and washing your hands, for everything you depend on somebody else," said Javanshir Hajiyev with aid group Mercy Corps. This is really a very dire situation. I can't stress how difficult it is."