Ethiopian forces were waging a fresh battle Sunday to retake the strategic northern city of Dessie, residents said, hours after Tigrayan rebels claimed to have captured it.
The fall of Dessie to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) on Saturday had marked a new step in its offensive in a nearly year-long war, after it retook most of Tigray from federal forces in June and expanded its presence into neighbouring regions.
But on Sunday, witnesses said renewed gun battles were under way in the city, with Ethiopian troops ordering residents to stay indoors, despite reportedly retreating a day earlier.
Much of northern Ethiopia is under a communications blackout and access for journalists is restricted, making battlefield claims difficult to verify independently.
“Soldiers told us they are fighting to take the city again… and told us no one should go out,” said Mohammed, a Dessie resident who declined to give his second name.
Desta, a former waiter in Dessie who gave only his first name, said he saw soldiers fighting in the streets.
“They are firing but I had to close my window… to not get spotted,” he told AFP.
Another resident Yemesirach, holed up indoors, also said she could hear gunfire, telling AFP she was “at home and scared”.
A statement from the Ethiopian military communications office on Sunday said: “The armed forces on the front will continue to clear the group of terrorists.”
“They are fighting to eliminate the invading force once and for all,” the statement added.
The TPLF did not respond to requests for comment.
An Ethiopian government minister on Sunday urged citizens to mobilise for battle, while the Amhara region—where Dessie is located—renewed calls for residents to sign up to safeguard their neighbourhoods.
“Every Ethiopian citizen able to fight should mobilise,” said Legesse Tulu, the minister of communication services.
The Amhara regional administration said it “calls on all citizens in the region who are able to fight to register… in the next three days”.
Residents earlier reported a heavy military build-up in Dessie, which lies about 400 kilometres (250 miles) north of Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa, as civilians fleeing conflict-hit towns further north poured into the city seeking refuge.
But on Saturday, Dessie itself saw an exodus, with many people piling into buses and fleeing for the town of Kombolcha, located further south.
Tigray, the region that neighbours Amhara, has faced near-daily aerial bombardments for almost two weeks as the military steps up its use of air power in the war.
According to a hospital official, 10 people died in an air strike on Thursday, while the UN said two strikes on October 18 killed three children.
The government said the facilities bombed were military in nature and aiding the TPLF.
The bombings have drawn international censure, and disrupted UN access to the region where an estimated 400,000 people face famine-like conditions under a de-facto aid blockade.—APP