The leaders of the Tigray, an Ethiopian war success, pledged to expel “enemies” from the region, suggesting that fighting will continue despite the federal government’s declaration of a ceasefire.
Tigrinya forces were conducting “mop-up” operations on Tuesday against Ethiopian government forces withdrawing from the regional capital Mekelle and the city was “100%” under its control.
“Twenty-five minutes ago the active engagement in Mekelle was over,” Getachew Reda, a spokesman for the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), told Reuters news agency by satellite phone. “Our forces continue to chase south and east.”
A spokeswoman for the prime minister, a military spokesman and the head of the government’s emergency working group in Tigray did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Eritrean forces, which fought alongside Ethiopian troops, are no longer visible in the city of Shire in Tigray, a witness told Reuters.
The withdrawal follows days of territorial gains by Tigrinya forces fighting the Ethiopian government and its allies.
The witness, who refused to be named for security reasons, said Eritrean soldiers had not been seen since Monday night. A second resident confirmed that there was a large movement of Eritrean troops out of Shire toward a northern city.
A hard blow
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent federal troops to Tigray last November to withdraw the government from the TPLF. He said the move came in response to TPLF attacks on federal army camps and promised victory would be quick.
But nearly eight months later, the operation suffered a severe blow when rebel troops entered Mekelle on Monday, sparking street celebrations as federal soldiers and members of an interim regional government appointed by Abiy fled.
The Abyy government announced Monday night that it was declaring a “unilateral ceasefire” – although there was no immediate response from the TPLF.
“The Tigray government and army will carry out all the necessary tasks to ensure the survival and security of our people,” a TPLF statement said. “The Tigray government is calling on our people and Tigray’s army to intensify their struggle until our enemies completely abandon Tigray.”
A guerrilla war
Al Jazeera’s Hiba Morgan, who reported from neighboring Khartoum to neighboring Sudan, said the federal government’s announcement of a ceasefire is an admission that Ethiopian national defense forces are not in the same position as just a week.
“Let’s not forget that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed – on November 28, about three weeks after the offensive in the Tigray region – announced that the war was largely over, that there was stability and [new] government, “Morgan said.
“At that time he did not announce the ceasefire. The Tigray Liberation Movement said they would continue to fight even if it was a guerrilla war, which is what apparently unfolded a few months after Abiy’s announcement. “
Although Tigray’s defense forces did not maintain any large cities for months, their leaders have repeatedly presumed that they were regrouping in remote rural areas.
Last week they launched a major offensive that coincided with Ethiopia’s highly anticipated national elections, which took place in much of the country, though not in Tigray.
The results of the polls have not yet been announced, but Abiy is expected to extend a formal mandate.
“Difficult” path to peace
The brutal war in Tigray has been marked by massacres, widespread sexual violence and other abuses.
The United Nations has also warned that the conflict has pushed hundreds of thousands of people on the brink of starvation.
In announcing its ceasefire, the federal government said it would last until the end of the current “agricultural season” and intended to facilitate agricultural production and distribution of aid while allowing rebel fighters to “return to a peaceful road “.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on Monday that he had spoken with Abiy, winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, and that he “hoped for an effective cessation of hostilities”.
He described the recent events in Tigray as “extremely worrying” saying that “they prove, once again, that there is no military solution to the crisis”.
Britain, the United States and Ireland have called for a public emergency meeting of the UN Security Council, which could take place on Friday, diplomatic sources said.
The Security Council has not been able to hold a public session on Tigray since the outbreak of war, and many African countries, China, Russia and other nations have seen the crisis as an internal Ethiopian affair.
Samuel Getachew, an Addis Ababa-based independent journalist, said there is pressure for “some kind of ceasefire” because of the regional implications of the conflict.
“It’s a regional conflict, Eritreans are involved in the north, some Ethiopians are heading to Sudan, so it’s no longer an Ethiopian problem,” Getachew told Al Jazeera.
“Ethiopia is a very powerful nation in the region, what happens in Ethiopia, especially on a large scale, will have an impact on other countries.”
During the fighting, Abiy has benefited from military support from soldiers in the neighboring region of Amhara, Eritrea and Ethiopia, which borders Tigray to the south.
The involvement of these forces “will complicate the overall implementation of a temporary ceasefire, which so far appears to be a largely unilateral move by the federal government,” said Connor Vasey, an analyst at risk consultancy Eurasia Group.
If discussions about a possible political deal really continue, “they are likely to be difficult and protracted,” Vasey said.