Interim government flees Ethiopian Tigray region capital as rebels advance: official

Interim government flees Ethiopian Tigray region capital as rebels advance: official
The interim Tigray government fled on Monday after a major offensive launched by the Tigray Defence Forces rebels last week alongside Ethiopia's anticipated national elections.
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Tigray Defence Forces rebels launched a major offensive last week [YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP/Getty-file photo]

The interim government of Ethiopia's war-hit Tigray region fled their posts on Monday as rebels advanced on the local capital, an official said, signalling a turning point in the nearly eight-month-old conflict.

The war in Tigray began last November, when Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent troops in to oust the dissident regional leadership, promising a swift victory.

But intense fighting has persisted, triggering a humanitarian crisis which the United Nations warns has left 350,000 people on the brink of famine.

The rebels, who have branded themselves the Tigray Defence Forces (TDF), launched a major offensive last week coinciding with Ethiopia's highly anticipated national elections.

An interim official told AFP on Monday that the Abiy-appointed interim government opted to leave their posts in Tigray's capital Mekele as TDF fighters closed in "on every side".

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"Everybody has left. The last ones left in the afternoon... The region doesn't have a government," said the official, who spoke to AFP on condition of anonymity for safety reasons.

A humanitarian official confirmed the interim government's departure.

"The interim officials left this morning," said the humanitarian official, also speaking on condition of anonymity.

Several witnesses said federal soldiers and police were also fleeing Mekele on Monday, and the humanitarian official said celebratory gunfire could be heard early Monday evening.

"It looks like from the way the community is reacting that... perhaps the troops have retreated from here," the official said.

Abiy's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Monday evening.

However state-affiliated Fana Broadcasting Corporate said Abraham Belay, head of the interim government, had called for a ceasefire.

"Tigray interim administration asks the federal government to agree to a ceasefire based on the humanity of the federal government and in a manner that doesn't result in more damage," the report quoted Abraham as saying.