Ethiopian forces fight to retake strategic city Dessie

Ethiopian forces fight to retake strategic northern city Dessie as rebels advance
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Ethiopian forces are fighting to retake the northern city of Dessie, according to residents. The city fell to the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) on Saturday.
On Sunday, witnesses said renewed gun battles were underway in the city of Dessie [source: Getty]

Ethiopian forces were waging a new battle Sunday to retake the strategic northern city of Dessie, residents said, as Tigrayan rebels made fresh advances southwards, sparking clashes with soldiers and local militias.

The fall of Dessie to the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) on Saturday had marked a new step in its offensive in a nearly year-long war after it retook most of Tigray from federal forces in June and expanded its presence into neighbouring regions.

But on Sunday, witnesses said renewed gun battles were underway in the city, with Ethiopian troops ordering residents to stay indoors, despite reportedly retreating a day earlier.

Witnesses also reported fresh fighting in the town of Kombolcha, south of Dessie, suggesting that the TPLF was heading closer to the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, as the federal government carried out a new airstrike on Tigray.

Much of northern Ethiopia is under a communications blackout and access for journalists is restricted, making battlefield claims difficult to verify independently.

In Dessie, residents spoke of hearing gunfire while holed up in their homes.

Desta, a former waiter who gave only his first name, said he saw troops fighting in the streets.

"They are firing but I had to close my window... to not get spotted," he told AFP.

"Soldiers told us they are fighting to take the city again... and told us no one should go out," said Mohammed, another resident who also declined to give his family name.

A statement from the Ethiopian military communications office said soldiers "are fighting to eliminate the invading force once and for all".

The TPLF did not respond to requests for comment.

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Residents earlier reported a heavy military build-up in Dessie, which lies about 400 kilometres (250 miles) north of Addis Ababa, as civilians fleeing conflict-hit towns further north poured into the city seeking refuge.

As fighting erupted in Dessie, many people piled into buses and fled for Kombolcha on Saturday.

But on Sunday, that town too saw a fresh outbreak of violence, with residents telling AFP they could hear gunfire from their homes.

"We saw TPLF entering through the main road in the morning, we ran to our homes," said a 32-year-old resident who gave his name only as Tadesse.

The rebels appeared to be engaged in gunfights with Amhara militias and Ethiopian soldiers, he said.

Another resident, Amsalu, 34, told AFP the firing began around 9 am and had intensified during the day.

"I hear gunshots in the city ... it's non-stop. I am just sitting at home to be safe," she said.

The Amhara region - where Dessie is located - renewed calls for residents to sign up to safeguard their neighbourhoods, while Ethiopian government spokesman Legesse Tulu urged citizens to mobilise for battle.

"Every Ethiopian citizen able to fight should mobilise," he said.

The Amhara regional administration said it "calls on all citizens in the region who are able to fight to register... in the next three days".

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Meanwhile, Ethiopia's military carried out an air strike on Tigray on Sunday - the latest in a campaign of air bombardments that began nearly two weeks ago as the military steps up its use of air power.

The strike near the regional capital of Mekele targeted a "military training facility [that] served as a recruiting and training centre" for the TPLF, Ethiopia's government communication service said on Twitter.

No casualties were confirmed but a hospital official said an earlier strike on Thursday killed 10 people, while the UN said two strikes on October 18 killed three children.

The government said the facilities bombed were military in nature and aiding the TPLF.

The bombings have drawn international censure and disrupted UN access to the region where an estimated 400,000 people face famine-like conditions under a de facto aid blockade.

The conflict erupted last November when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed deployed troops in Tigray, with the operation spiralling into a prolonged war marked by massacres, mass rapes and a humanitarian crisis.

The 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner said the operation was in response to attacks on army camps by the TPLF, the regional ruling party.

He vowed a swift victory, but by late June the rebels had retaken most of Tigray and fighting spread to the neighbouring regions of Amhara and Afar.