The interim government of Ethiopia’s war-hit Tigray region have fled their posts as rebels seized the local capital, marking a dramatic development in the nearly eight-month-old conflict.
“The capital of Tigray, Mekelle, is under our control,” Getachew Reda, the spokesperson for the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), told Reuters by satellite phone.
Federal troops invaded Tigray in November to depose the regional ruling party after attacks on government military bases. The TPLF was ousted within six weeks and the conflict has become a grinding guerrilla war and triggered a humanitarian crisis. The UN has said 350,000 people are on the brink of famine.
The rebels launched an offensive last week coinciding with Ethiopia’s highly anticipated national elections. An interim official told Agence France-Presse (AFP) on Monday that the interim local government opted to leave their posts in Mekelle as rebel fighters closed in “on every side”.
“Everybody has left. The last ones left in the afternoon. The region doesn’t have a government,” said the official, who spoke to AFP on condition of anonymity for safety reasons.
A humanitarian official confirmed the interim government’s departure. “The interim officials left this morning,” said the humanitarian official, also speaking on condition of anonymity.
Several witnesses said federal soldiers and police were also fleeing Mekelle, and the humanitarian official said celebratory gunfire could be heard early on Monday evening.
“It looks like from the way the community is reacting that … perhaps the troops have retreated from here,” the official said.
The office of Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Shortly afterwards, Ethiopia’s government declared an immediate, unilateral ceasefire in the region.
The ceasefire “will enable farmers to till their land, aid groups to operate without any military movement around and engage with remnants (of Tigray’s former ruling party) who seek peace,” Ethiopia’s statement said, adding that efforts to bring Tigray’s former leaders to justice continued.
Ethiopia said the ceasefire would last until the end of the crucial planting season in Tigray. The season’s end comes in September. The government ordered all federal and regional authorities to respect the ceasefire.