The Ethiopian military on Saturday began an offensive in the Tigray regional capital in its quest to arrest the region’s defiant leaders. Tigray TV announced shelling in Mekele, a city of a half-million people. A report from the city confirmed it.

The Tigray leader could not immediately be reached. Ethiopia’s government did not immediately comment.

Ethiopia’s government had warned Mekele residents there would be “no mercy” if they didn’t move away from the leaders of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front in time.

Communications remain largely severed to the Tigray region of some 6 million people, making it difficult to verify claims by the warring sides in the conflict between Ethiopia’s government and the TPLF, which once dominated the country’s ruling coalition but was sidelined under new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.

Abiy has rejected dialogue with the TPLF. Each government regards the other as illegal.

The offensive on the densely populated city, and the threat of civilian deaths, has alarmed the international community. The United Nations said people were fleeing Mekele as forces closed in. Abiy’s government has said it will take care to avoid harming civilians in the tank-led assault.

As Ethiopian forces moved in, Maj. Gen. Hassan Ibrahim vowed to capture the city “on all fronts.”

“It is possible that some of the wanted people may go to their families or neighboring areas and try to hide for few days. But our armed forces after seizing the control of Mekele city will be tasked to hunt down and capture these criminals one by one wherever they may be,” he said in comments carried by the Ethiopian News Agency.

The Tigray region has been almost entirely cut off from the outside world since November 4, when Abiy announced a military offensive in response to a TPLF attack on a military base. Humanitarians have said at least hundreds of people have been killed.

The fighting threatens to destabilize Ethiopia, which has been described as the linchpin of the strategic Horn of Africa.

With transport links cut, food and other supplies are running out in Tigray, home to 6 million people, and the United Nations has asked for immediate and unimpeded access for aid. 

Multiple crises are growing. More than 43,000 refugees have fled for Sudan, where people struggle to give them food, shelter and care. One humanitarian agency says hospitals in Tigray are running out of drugs. And fighting near camps of Eritrean refugees in northern Ethiopia has put them in the line of fire.

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi on Saturday visited Sudan’s Umm Rakouba refugee camp, which was housing some 10,000 refugees. He said about $150 million is needed over the next six months to help Sudan manage the influx.

Worryingly, refugees in Sudan have told The Associated Press that Ethiopian forces near the border are impeding people from leaving. Reporters from the AP saw crossings slow to a trickle in recent days. Ethiopia’s government has not commented.

“We have seen the figure of people decline but continuing. Five to 600 per day is not a small figure, let’s make no mistake. It is true there were days in which they were in their thousands, but it depends also on the difficulty of moving around their country and on the border,” Grandi said.

Access to Tigray is “the main obstacle at the moment,” the U.N. commissioner say, urging Abiy Ahmed’s government to “grant us corridors or whatever they call it to provide assistance.” 

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