Ethiopian federal forces have taken “full control” of the Tigray region’s capital Mekelle, the prime minister and the military’s chief of staff said on Saturday evening.
Authorities had said earlier that government forces were in the final stages of an offensive in the region and would take care to protect civilians in Mekelle, a city of 500,000 people.
There was no immediate comment from the Tigrayan forces in the northern region, who have been fighting government troops for the past three weeks.
“The federal government is now fully in control of the city of Mekelle,” Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said in a statement posted on his Twitter page.
That followed a statement saying the same from the army chief of staff, Birhanu Jula, on the military’s official Facebook page.
Claims from all sides are difficult to verify since phone and internet links to the region have been down and access has been tightly controlled since fighting began on Nov. 4.
Earlier on Saturday, a diplomat in direct contact with residents, and the leader of Tigrayan forces said federal forces had begun an offensive to capture Mekelle.
The government had given the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) an ultimatum that expired on Wednesday to lay down arms or face an assault on the city.
Thousands of people are believed to have died and around 43,000 refugees have fled to neighboring Sudan during the conflict. The northern region of Tigray also borders the nation of Eritrea.
Abiy accuses Tigrayan leaders of starting the war by attacking federal troops at a base in Tigray. The TPLF says the attack was a pre-emptive strike.
(Reporting by Addis Ababa newsroom, Katharine Houreld, David Lewis and Omar Mohammed Additional reporting by Baz Ratner and Seham Eloraby in al-Qadarif, Sudan Writing by Maggie Fick Editing by Frances Kerry)