Ethiopia’s national army launched a ground offensive against forces from the northern region of Tigray on Monday, the war-torn region’s governing Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) said.
TPLF spokesperson Getachew Reda said the army – alongside allied forces from the northern Amhara region – began the attack to push Tigrayan forces out of Amhara in the morning.
The Tigray external affairs office said in a statement air strikes, drone raids, and heavy artillery bombardments was also under way.
It was not possible to independently verify the TPLF’s statements.
Asked if an operation had been launched, Billene Seyoum, spokeswoman for Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, said the Ethiopian government had a responsibility to protect its citizens in all parts of the country from any acts of “terrorism”.
“The government of Ethiopia will continue to counter the TPLF’s destruction, violence and killings in the Amhara region and elsewhere,” she added, without elaborating.
The new offensive has shattered a ceasefire that Ethiopia’s government declared in June as its forces retreated from Tigray, where it had been pursuing the Tigray leaders who had dominated the national government for 27 years before Abiy took office and sidelined them.
Thousands of people have been killed since the political dispute turned deadly in November last year.
Amhara and Tigray have a decades-long dispute over territory after Tigray enlarged its borders a quarter of a century ago to include fertile farmlands also claimed by the Amhara region.
Amhara sent forces into that territory – officially known as Western Tigray – when fighting erupted in November between the national army and rebellious TPLF forces, and has retained control ever since.
In June, Tigrayan forces took back control of most of Tigray, forcing the national military to withdraw. Tigrayan forces then invaded the neighbouring region of Amhara in July, saying it was a tactic to try to force Amhara forces out of the heavily militarised region.
The Amhara regional spokesman signalled on Twitter last week an offensive against Tigrayan forces could be imminent, and since Friday there have been heavy air raids reported in several Tigrayan-held areas of Amhara.
Samuel Getachew, an independent journalist, said the government had been preparing for this moment for a while.
“There was mobilisation going on. In Amhara region, for instance, it was an open secret – and this is a defining moment that the Ethiopian government has been saying is forthcoming,” Getachew told Al Jazeera from Ethiopia’s Semera. “It is expected to be bloody.”
According to Getachew, the British government asked its citizens to avoid the Tigray region earlier on Monday, which may signal there will be an offensive “in the days to come”.
“The objective [of the Ethiopian government] is to prevent the TPLF from having a chance to govern Tigray – they just want to kill or eliminate the essence of the TPLF,” he said.
“The Abiy administration has said eliminating the TPLF will become a priority for the government.”
Meanwhile, Getachew, the TPLF spokesperson, said the Ethiopian military – with the support of Amhara special forces – “launched coordinated offensives on all fronts”. He said there was fighting in the Amhara region’s Wegeltena, Wurgessa and Haro towns.
The fighting since November 2020 has displaced millions of people and forced hundreds of thousands of Tigrayans into famine – a situation the United Nations has blamed on a government blockade. The government has denied that it is blocking aid.
The fighting has made about 5.2 million people in Tigray – more than 90 percent of the population – and another 1.7 million people in Afar and Amhara dependent on food aid.
The new fighting defies calls for peace by the United Nations and others, and the threat of new sanctions from the United States and European Union.
“Our forces have no other option than to defend their people,” the Tigray statement said.