Ethiopian federal forces were encircling the Tigray region’s capital from around 50 km (30 miles) on Monday, the government said, after giving the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) a 72-hour ultimatum to surrender.
“The beginning of the end is within reach,” government spokesman Redwan Hussein said of the nearly three-week-old offensive that has destabilised Ethiopia and spilled into some Horn of Africa neighbours.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has told the TPLF, which had been ruling the mountainous northern zone of five million people, to lay down arms by Wednesday or face a final assault on Mekelle, a highland city of half a million people.
TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael denied that Mekelle was surrounded and told Reuters the ultimatum threat was a cover for government forces to regroup after what he described as defeats on three fronts.
Reuters could not verify the latest statements.
Claims by all sides are hard to verify because phone and internet communication has been down.
Hundreds, possibly thousands, have been killed in fighting and air strikes that erupted on November 4, sending about 40 000 refugees into neighboring Sudan, after the government accused the TPLF of ambushing a federal military base.
The conflict has spread beyond Tigray, with the TPLF firing rockets into both the neighboring Amhara region and across the border to Eritrea, which Tigrayans accuse of supporting government forces, something Asmara denies.
Redwan told a news conference that the government now controlled most of Tigray and people in captured towns were handing over weapons given them by the TPLF.
Federal forces were ringing Mekelle from about 50 km, he added in a text to Reuters.
Tigrayan forces fired rockets on Monday at Bahir Dar, the capital of Amhara region whose authorities are supporting the federal offensive, Redwan and residents said. He said the rockets caused no damage.
TPLF troops had also destroyed the airport at the ancient town of Axum, a popular tourist draw and UNESCO World Heritage site 215 km (133 miles) northwest of Mekelle, the government said.
The TPLF’s Debretsion denied this, saying obstacles had been put up to block advances by the Ethiopian military.
Axum’s history and ruins, including fourth-century obelisks erected when the Axumite Empire was at its height, gives Ethiopia its claim to be one of the world’s oldest centers of Christianity.
Legend says it was home to the Queen of Sheba and Ethiopians believe a church there houses the Ark of the Covenant.