In a major turn in Ethiopia’s eight-month civil war in the northern Tigray region, Tigrayan fighters began entering the regional capital Monday night after Ethiopian government troops retreated from the city.
The Ethiopian military has occupied the Tigray region since last November, after invading in cooperation with Eritrean and militia forces to wrest control from the regional government. The Tigrayan forces, known as the Tigray Defense Forces, spent months regrouping and recruiting new fighters, and then in the past week began a rolling counterattack back toward the capital, Mekelle.
New York Times journalists in Mekelle saw thousands of residents take to the streets on Monday night, waving flags and shooting off fireworks after hearing that Tigrayan forces had advanced to the city.
The Tigrayans’ rapid advance was a significant setback for the government of Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, who had declared when he sent his forces into the restive Tigray region last year that the operation would be over in a matter of weeks.
Sisay Hagos, a 36-year-old who was celebrating in Mekelle on Monday, said: “They invaded us. Abiy is a liar and a dictator, but he is defeated already. Tigray will be an independent country!”
A senior interim official who had been installed by the federal government in Tigray confirmed that Tigrayan forces had entered the city and had seized control of the airport and telecommunications network. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid reprisals.
Ethiopia’s government said Monday that it had called a unilateral cease-fire in Tigray. It was not immediately clear, however, whether Tigrayan forces had accepted the truce.
Refugees and international observers have accused the invading forces of wide-ranging atrocities, including ethnic cleansing, and of pushing the region to the brink of famine.
But from the outset, the party in control of Tigray’s regional government, known as the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, or T.P.L.F., which for many years was the ruling party in Ethiopia, has vowed to resist.
Soldiers belonging to the Ethiopian National Defense Forces were seen leaving Mekelle in vehicles throughout the day on Monday, some of them with looted materials, according to international and aid workers. Soldiers also entered the compound of Unicef and the World Food Program, and disconnected the internet, they said. Shops in the city closed early.