NAIROBI (AFP) - Ethiopian forces have recaptured several towns from Tigrayan rebels, including Kobo and Woldiya, in the north, the government announced on Saturday (Dec 18), as fierce fighting raged in the 13-month war that has left thousands dead.
The conflict between forces loyal to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) rebel group has triggered a severe humanitarian crisis and prompted the United Nation's top rights body to order an international probe into alleged abuses.
Mr Abiy, a former lieutenant-colonel in the military, announced last month that he would head to the front, following which the government has claimed to have retaken several key towns.
Communications have been cut in the conflict zone and access for journalists is restricted, making it difficult to verify battlefield claims.
But on Saturday, the government communication service said pro-Abiy forces "have managed to fully control Sanqa, Sirinqa, as well as the cities of Woldiya, Hara, Gobiye, Robit and Kobo".
"The enemy force which escaped from destruction and was fleeing... is being followed by our allied forces," it said in a statement on its Facebook page.
Starting late October, the two sides have each claimed major territorial advances, with several key cities apparently changing hands in the weeks since.
On Sunday, the rebels recaptured the Unesco World Heritage site of Lalibela, 11 days after Ethiopian forces claimed to have retaken it from the TPLF.
The war broke out in November last year when Mr Abiy sent troops into Ethiopia's northernmost region of Tigray to topple the TPLF, accusing them of attacking army camps.
He vowed a swift victory, but the rebels mounted a shock comeback, recapturing most of Tigray by June before advancing into the neighbouring regions of Afar and Amhara, where Kobo and Woldiya are located.
The fighting has displaced more than two million and driven hundreds of thousands into famine-like conditions, according to UN estimates, with reports of massacres and mass rapes by both sides.
On Friday, the UN Human Rights Council voted to send international investigators to Africa's second-most populous nation amid warnings of looming generalised violence, in a move slammed by Addis Ababa.
Diplomatic efforts led by the African Union to try to reach a ceasefire have failed to achieve any visible breakthrough.
Fears of a rebel march on the capital prompted countries such as the United States, France and Britain to urge their citizens to leave Ethiopia as soon as possible, although Mr Abiy's government has insisted the city was secure.