Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced Thursday that the final operation to take the capital of the rebellious Tigray province could now begin after a 72-hour ultimatum to surrender had expired.

Ethiopia’s military intervened in the rugged northern province after local forces there attacked an army base and made off with military equipment on Nov. 3, sparking a two-week military campaign that has seen federal forces take over much of Tigray.

With communications to the province cut it was impossible to verify whether the military operation against the regional capital of Mekelle had actually begun. Government forces said they had surrounded the city of 500,000 from a distance of 30 miles away.

600 civilians were killed in massacre in Tigray, Ethiopia’s rights commission says

“The Ethiopian National Defence forces have now been directed to conclude the third and final phase of our rule of law operation,” said the statement from the prime minister’s office. “We call on the people of Mekelle and its environs to disarm, stay at home and stay away from military targets, and take all necessary precautions.”

The government campaign is against the political party controlling the province, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, which once dominated the coalition that ruled the country for nearly 30 years. With the rise of Abiy, they retreated to their power base in Tigray and in recent months relations with the central government have declined dramatically.

The Ethiopian government has insisted its quarrel is only with the TPLF and not against the Tigrayan people.

In messages to media outlets, the TPLF leadership has insisted that government forces have suffered several defeats. The Ethiopian government has countered by reporting widespread surrenders among TPLF forces.

There has been widespread international concern about the ongoing campaign and calls for mediation that have been rejected by Abiy, who has said the operation is an internal matter.

At least 40,000 refugees have fled the fighting into neighboring Sudan and there have been reports of hundreds of civilians massacred.

After fleeing to Sudan, Ethiopians from Tigray recount brutal killings

Ethiopia conflict escalates as army sends more troops to Tigray region

Ethiopia sends troops into renegade northern province as long-simmering tensions explode

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