Ethiopian forces and Tigray rebels fought a pitched battle for control of Kombolcha on Monday, terrified residents reported, after rebels claimed to have taken their second city in two days.
Reports of rebels capturing Kombolcha came a day after they claimed control of Dessie and, if confirmed, would mark a breakthrough by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in the nearly year-long war.
Much of northern Ethiopia is blocked from communications and access for journalists is restricted, making independent verification of claims on the battlefield difficult.
Kombolcha residents described nonstop gunfire throughout the night and into the early hours of Monday, with some saying they heard what appeared to be an airstrike on the outskirts of the city around midnight.
“The night was filled with many shootings,” said Mohammed, who like other locals refused to share his last name for security reasons.
“I heard an airstrike after midnight outside the borders of Kombolcha,” he added.
Hamdiu, a Kombolcha trader, told AFP that he too heard what sounded like an airstrike around midnight.
“Huge shots were heard until (this) morning,” he said, with the rebels locked in combat with federal troops and local militias.
The United States is alarmed by reports of the TPLF acquisition of Dessie and Kombolcha. Continued fighting prolongs the terrible humanitarian crisis in northern Ethiopia. All parties must stop military operations and begin ceasefire negotiations without preconditions.
– Secretary Antony Blinken (@SecBlinken) November 1, 2021
Over the past two weeks, the Ethiopian government has carried out a series of aerial bombardments in Tigray.
But so far there has been no bombardment against the Amhara region, where Kombolcha and Dessie are located, and a government spokeswoman told AFP on Monday: “There were no airstrikes in Kombolcha overnight.”
Control of the skies, along with a superior workforce, is one of the few remaining areas where the government has a military advantage over the rebels.
AFP was unable to reach anyone in Dessie, where heavy fighting was reported on Sunday.
The rebel offensive in cities south of Addis Ababa has fueled speculation that the TPLF was closing in on the Ethiopian capital.
But rebel spokesman Getachew Reda said the TPLF, which dominated national politics for three decades until 2018, had “no motive other than to break the deadly siege” on Tigray, which is in the midst of a serious humanitarian crisis. .
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has urged Ethiopians to use “any kind of weapons … to block the destructive TPLF, to overturn and bury it.”
“Dying for Ethiopia is a duty (for) all of us,” he said.
The Amhara government on Sunday ordered all government institutions to suspend regular services and divert their budgets to “the survival campaign.”
Elsewhere in Amhara, Oromo Liberation Army rebels, who are allied with the TPLF, announced on Sunday that they had captured the town of Kemissie, south of Kombolcha and located on a main road to Addis Ababa.
The conflict erupted last November when Abiy deployed troops to Tigray, promising a quick victory. But the operation instead turned into a protracted war marked by massacres, mass rapes and a humanitarian crisis.