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Rebel forces in Ethiopia’s Tigray region claim to have regained control of the embattled regional capital

The city of Mekele is seen through a bullet hole in a hospital window, in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia, in May. (Ben Curtis/AP)
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Seven months after they were dislodged by Ethiopia’s military, the former leaders of Ethiopia’s Tigray region claimed to have regained control Monday over the regional capital, marking what could be a significant — and unexpected — turning point in a deadly civil war.

In a statement, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front said Mekele was under its “complete control.” The statement said the group anticipated retaliation from the government and called on the city’s residents to rally behind the group.

An official in Tigray’s Addis Ababa-appointed interim government, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the situation, said celebrations broke out Monday.

“People are firing fireworks, hooting horns, shouting in groups,” he said.

He added the interim government’s top leadership had all left Mekele.

Amid the apparent territorial gains by Tigrayan rebels, Ethiopia’s government unilaterally declared a cease-fire Monday, claiming it would last until the end of Tigray’s planting season in September.

“An unconditional, unilateral ceasefire has been declared starting from today, June 28,” read a statement published by state media Monday night.

A cease-fire had long been sought by humanitarian groups and Western governments.

Tigrayan officials did not address the cease-fire publicly, and on Tuesday morning spokesman Getachew Reda told Reuters that rebel forces were “still in hot pursuit” of government-aligned forces to the south and east of Mekele.

Meanwhile, west of Mekele, in the contested town of Shire, Reuters also reported the apparent withdrawal of troops from neighboring Eritrea, which have been fighting alongside Ethiopia’s military. Eritrea’s government has not publicly acknowledged the cease-fire either.

The United Nations and humanitarian organizations have warned that nearly 1 million people could be facing famine conditions. Fighting, as well as alleged incidents of outright theft of humanitarian vehicles and cargo by combatants, have severely hindered aid delivery.

U.N. Secretary General António Guterres said he had spoken with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, and he was “hopeful an effective cessation of hostilities will take place.”

Last week, an Ethiopian airstrike hit a bustling market in a town near Mekele, killing at least 60, according to the interim government official. Ethiopia’s military claimed all the dead were rebel fighters, despite numerous reports of children being among the casualties.

Days later, three Doctors Without Borders employees were killed in an ambush. The Ethiopian government and Tigrayan forces traded blame for that attack.

On Monday morning, Ethiopian soldiers allegedly entered the offices of UNICEF in Mekele and dismantled a satellite communication device, according to the organization’s top official. Agence France-Presse cited witness reports from Mekele of federal soldiers and police raiding banks and commandeering vehicles belonging to private citizens while fleeing the city ahead of the rebel advance.

Ethiopian troops have fought alongside ethnic militias and neighboring Eritrea’s military. Tigray’s western portion, which also borders Sudan, has been under administration for months by officials from Ethiopia’s Amhara region.

While Abiy had claimed at the outset of the conflict in November that it would be brief and that Tigray’s rebellious leadership would be eliminated with surgical precision, it long ago became clear a protracted battle for the region was unfolding. Tigray’s rebel leaders ran Ethiopia for decades as part of the regime that preceded Abiy’s.

Large-scale atrocities have accompanied the fighting, including allegations of door-to-door killings and rapes by Eritrean troops, massacres carried out by both Tigrayan and Amhara militias, and scores of extrajudicial killings by Ethiopian troops.

The Tigrayan militia, known as the Tigray Defense Forces, had been gaining momentum in moving back toward Mekele in recent weeks, according to U.N. security reports. Tigray’s interim government leaders, who are ethnic Tigrayans but appointed by the federal government, quietly left the city last week, telling colleagues it was related to recently concluded voting in national elections — even though no voting took place in Tigray.

“A lot of young people, merchants, farmers have joined the TDF,” the interim government official said. “They feel that they are fighting for survival. They will fight forever, that’s for sure. It is now irreconcilable.”

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