ADDIS ABABA (AFP) - The leader of Ethiopia's dissident Tigray region has said that his people are "ready to die" defending their homeland, rejecting Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's ultimatum that they surrender within 72 hours.
Mr Abiy launched a military campaign against the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) on Nov 4, accusing it of attacking two federal military camps in the northern region, as well as defying and seeking to destabilise his government.
The federal army says its forces are within 60 kilometres of Mekele, the Tigrayan capital and seat of the TPLF, ahead of a threatened all-out bombardment of the city of half a million people.
Mr Abiy - last year's Nobel Peace Prize winner - on Sunday (Nov 22) called on the TPLF to surrender peacefully within three days, saying they were "at a point of no return".
But the TPLF's leader Debretsion Gebremichael said Mr Abiy was trying to cover for setbacks his army had suffered against Tigrayan forces, and was issuing threats to buy time.
"He doesn't understand who we are. We are people of principle and ready to die in defence of our right to administer our region," Mr Debretsion told AFP via WhatsApp on Monday.
A communications blackout in the region has made claims from both sides difficult to verify.
'No mercy' threat
Brigadier-General Tesfaye Ayalew, as quoted by state-affiliated Fana Broadcasting Corporate on Monday, said that federal troops were "marching into Mekele", having captured key towns to the north and south.
The army has threatened a "no mercy" tank assault on the TPLF leadership in Mekele, warning civilians to leave while they still can, raising concerns among rights activists.
"Treating a whole city as a military target would not only (be) unlawful, it could also be considered a form of collective punishment," Human Rights Watch researcher Laetitia Bader wrote on Twitter.
Mr Abiy has urged the people of Mekele to side with the national army against the TPLF, "in bringing this treasonous group to justice".
Hundreds of people are reported to have been killed in nearly three weeks of fighting which has seen warplanes bomb the region and tanks enter the fray.
Amnesty International also documented a gruesome massacre in which "scores and likely hundreds" of people were stabbed and hacked to death in the south-west town of Mai-Kadra.
Over 40,000 Ethiopians have meanwhile fled west into Sudan and rockets have hit Eritrea to the north, spurring fears the internal conflict risks instability beyond its borders.
The UN Security Council will hold its first meeting on the conflict in Tigray, diplomatic sources said late on Monday.
Tuesday's virtual meeting will not be open to the public, they said, and it was not yet clear if a statement would be issued afterwards.
In Bahir Dar, the capital of the Amhara region south of Tigray, two witnesses told AFP on Monday that rockets had hit the city, the third time it has endured shelling since the fighting began.
"Three rockets fell on the city near the airport area. We don't know about casualties or damages," said one witness, who asked not be named.
There was no immediate response from the government, nor any claim of responsibility.
The TPLF claimed responsibility for earlier rocket strikes on Bahir Dar and Gondar, another city in Amhara, as well as Eritrea's capital Asmara.
Mr Abiy in a statement late on Sunday accused Tigrayan forces of destroying key infrastructure in their retreat from fighting, including the airport in the town of Axum and schools, bridges, medical centres and roads.
Images broadcast by Ethiopian authorities on Monday showed what appeared to be deep gouges and damage to the tarmac at Axum.
Mr Abiy has resisted international pressure to halt the fighting, including from the African Union (AU), describing the campaign as a "law enforcement operation" against a "treasonous group" that is now entering its final phase.
Mr Redwan Hussein, spokesman for an Ethiopian committee handling the conflict, said the government would meet envoys sent by the AU "as a matter of respect" but flatly ruled out any talks with the TPLF.
"Facts on the ground have changed, and we've come to the very end," he told reporters on Monday.
The TPLF led the armed struggle that toppled the brutal Derg regime in 1991 and controlled the coalition that took over, ruling Ethiopia for nearly three decades until Mr Abiy was appointed in 2018.
Since then, Tigrayan leaders have complained of being unfairly targeted in corruption prosecutions, removed from top positions and broadly scapegoated for the country's woes.