Thousands flee Ethiopian regional capital to overcrowded camps as troops ordered to launch assault

People continued to flee the capital of Ethiopia’s embattled Tigray region. Credit: AP

Thousands of people continue to flee the capital of Ethiopia’s northern region of Tigray as the federal government ordered troops to move for the “final phase” of an offensive to arrest defiant regional leaders.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed warned residents in Mekele, a densely populated city of 500,000 people, to stay indoors and disarm.

Locals would be shown “no mercy” if they did not separate themselves from the Tigray leaders, Mr Ahmed said, although his government has vowed to protect civilians.

More than 40,000 refugees - nearly half of them children - have already crossed into a remote part of Sudan where local communities and humanitarian workers struggle to provide food, shelter and care in already swollen camps.

Umm Rakouba camp, in a valley in remote part of Sudan, is already over capacity.

The camp which is meant to house 5,000 Ethiopian refugees fleeing violence from the Tigray region has now almost doubled that capacity.

An outbreak of Covid-19 outbreak in these overcrowded camps remains a very real threat.

The military are now reportedly standing at the border with Sudan and preventing people from leaving Ethiopia, according to the BBC.

The Tigray region has been the centre of increased tension and conflict over the past few weeks.

With communications and transport links severed, it is difficult to verify the true extent of the violence in the area, but reports say hundreds of people have been killed and thousands have been forced from their homes as Ethiopian government forces seize towns from the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) party which controls the region.

Refugees from neighbouring Eritrea have been caught up in fighting close to camps of nearly 100,000.

Ethiopia’s prime minister said on Thursday the army has been ordered to move on the embattled Tigray regional capital Credit: Nariman El-Mofty/AP

The United Nations has urged immediate access for humanitarian aid as food and other vital supplies begin to run out in the Tigray region of 6 million people.

“We cannot keep social distancing here in the camp,” said Mohammed Rafik Nasri, from the UN refugee agency.

“It is really challenging among the several issues in need that are growing because the number is growing. Today we are receiving a convoy of 1,000 arriving in the camp. And shelter is one of the biggest challenges that we have at the moment.”

One refugee Atsbaha Gtsadik said: “It makes me so sad. The country has no peace. You see one tribe killing another. It is so hard.”

Fighting is thought to have that erupted on November 4 between central government forces and the heavily armed regional TPLF.

The TPLF which once dominated Ethiopia’s government have been sidelined under Mr Abiy’s - last year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner - rule.

Tigray people who fled the conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region arrive at Umm Rakouba refugee camp in Qadarif, eastern Sudan Credit: Nariman El-Mofty/AP

The two governments now regard each other as illegal.

The fighting threatens to destabilise Ethiopia, which has been described as the linchpin of the strategic Horn of Africa.

Abiy, has rejected international “interference.”

His government has said three high-level African Union envoys for the conflict can meet with him, but not with the Tigray leaders.