The Ethiopian army has told residents of the northern region of Tigray to “save themselves” as government troops advance on the capital, Mekelle.

The military plans to encircle the city – home to 500,000 people – with tanks and fire artillery, Col Dejene Tsegaye, a military spokesman, told state TV.

“Free yourselves from the junta… there will be no mercy,” he said.

The Tigray People’s Liberation Front, which controls the mountainous region, has vowed to continue fighting.

Its leader, Debretsion Gebremichael, told Reuters news agency that his forces had managed to stall advancing federal troops.

“On south front, they couldn’t move an inch for more than one week. They [are] sending waves after waves but to no avail,” he added.

The government said its troops took over some key towns last week.

The conflict has reportedly killed hundreds and displaced thousands in recent weeks. The UN has warned it could trigger a humanitarian crisis.

On Friday, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, in his capacity as the African Union chairperson, announced the appointment of three former presidents to lead talks to end the conflict.

But Ethiopia has rejected the offer because it sees the operation as an internal “law enforcement” mission.

“We don’t negotiate with criminals… We bring them to justice, not to the negotiating table,” Mamo Mihretu, a senior aide to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed told the BBC.

What is the fighting about?

Ethiopians gather to show their support to federal government forces fighting against the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) at Abebe Bikila Stadium in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on November 17, 2020.

Federal government forces fighting at Abebe Bikila Stadium in Addis Ababa. Photo: AFP

The conflict is rooted in longstanding tension between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the powerful regional party, and Ethiopia’s central government.

When Abiy postponed a national election because of coronavirus in June, tensions escalated. The TPLF sees the central government as illegitimate, arguing that Abiy no longer has a mandate.

On 4 November the Ethiopian prime minister announced an operation against the TPLF, accusing its forces of attacking the army’s northern command headquarters in Mekelle.

TPLF has rejected the claims.

Its fighters, drawn mostly from a paramilitary unit and a well-drilled local militia, are thought to number 250,000.

What else did Abiy’s aide say?

“Our African brothers and sisters would play a more significant role if they put pressure on TPLF to surrender and for that, you know, nobody needs to go to Tigray or Mekelle to make that point clear to them,” Mamo said.

He said former leaders from Mozambique, Liberia, and South Africa – who were due to arrive in the country in the coming days – would not be able to visit Tigray because of the ongoing military operation.

Communication and transport services has been severely hampered since fighting broke out.

Mamo added that the government was doing its “utmost” to allow UN agencies to provide assistance to people in Tigray.

How bad is the situation?

Ethiopian refugees who fled fighting in the Tigray Region receive snacks at the Village 8 border reception center in Sudan's eastern Gedaref State, on November 20, 2020.

Photo: AFP

Aid agencies have no access to the conflict zone, but they fear that thousands of civilians may have been killed since fighting erupted at the beginning of November.

At least 33,000 refugees have already crossed into Sudan. The UN refugee agency has said it is preparing for up to 200,000 people to arrive over the next six months if the fighting continues.

On Friday, the TPLF was accused of firing rockets into the city of Bahir Dar in the neighbouring Amhara region. The Amhara government said there were no casualties and no damage caused.

But the reported incident in Amhara, which has a long-running border dispute with Tigray, has raised concerns that the conflict could extend into a wider war after regional forces were sent to support federal troops.

Meanwhile, the UN has raised concerns about the influx of refugees into Sudan, which it says could destabilise a nation already supporting about a million people displaced from other African countries.

Many of the refugees arriving in Sudan are believed to be children. Aid agencies say an immediate ceasefire would allow them to help thousands of civilians still trapped inside Ethiopia.

Aid agencies are appealing for $50m for food and shelter for the new arrivals.