ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia (AP) — Ethiopian authorities said Monday they are aiming to get immediate control of airports and other infrastructure in Tigray, a statement of their war intentions that was followed by the capture of a town in the embattled northern region.
Shire, a major northwestern town in Tigray, was captured Monday afternoon by Ethiopia’s federal military and allied forces, according to four humanitarian aid sources who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because of safety concerns.
There was no immediate word from Tigrayan or Ethiopian authorities on the capture of Shire.
Shire, which hosts a large number of displaced people, is the largest urban center to change hands since fighting resumed between federal government troops and their rivals in Tigray in August. The scene of heavy clashes between the warring parties in recent days, Shire is where an attack Friday killed a International Rescue Committee worker who was distributing aid.
News of Shire’s capture came as U.N. Sectary-General Antonio Gutteres said the situation in northern Ethiopia was “spiraling out of control.”
Earlier Monday, Ethiopia’s Government Communications Service had asserted that the federal government’s aim is to control infrastructure in Tigray, despite growing calls by diplomats who are demanding a ceasefire and peace talks.
“It is … imperative that the government of Ethiopia assumes immediate control of all airports, other federal facilities and installations in the (Tigray) region,” the statement said. “This will enable the government to expedite humanitarian aid to the people in need.”
The government said hostile foreign powers were violating the country’s airspace before the latest round of war ignited on Aug. 24, the statement claimed, without giving details of the outside powers.
Ethiopia is under pressure to begin the peace talks that were set to kick off this month in South Africa. They were delayed because of logistical issues.
Moussa Faki Mahamat, the chairman of the African Union Commission, on Sunday urged an “immediate, unconditional ceasefire” in northern Ethiopia, echoing a similar call by Guterres.
The AU’s call was quickly praised by Tigray officials.
The Ethiopian government statement Monday warned civilians and humanitarian workers to “distance themselves from TPLF’s military assets,” referring to the political party of Tigray’s fugitive leaders.
Fighting resumed between Tigray forces and federal troops in August, bringing an end to a cease-fire in place since March that had allowed much-needed aid to enter the region. Eritrean troops are fighting on the side of Ethiopia’s federal military.
USAID Administrator Samantha Power called on Eritrean forces to withdraw from Tigray and urged the parties to observe a cease-fire, warning in a tweet that up to 1 million people are “teetering on the edge of famine” in the region.
“The conflict has displaced millions of people, and camps for displaced Ethiopians have also fallen under attack,” said Power, who warned of further bloodshed if Eritrean and Ethiopian federal forces take charge of the camps.
European Union foreign policy chief Joseph Borrell said he was “horrified by the reports of continuous violence, including the targeting of civilians in Shire.”
Aid distributions are being hampered by a lack of fuel and a communications blackout in Tigray. The AP reported Saturday that a U.N. team found there were “10 starvation-related deaths” at seven camps for internally displaced people in northwestern Tigray, according to an internal document.
Millions of people in northern Ethiopia, including the neighboring regions of Amhara and Afar, have been uprooted from their homes and tens of thousands of people are believed to have been killed since the conflict broke out in November 2020.
___ An Associated Press reporter in Nairobi, Kenya, contributed to this report.