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Ethiopians flee Tigray capital in fear of imminent assault

People continued to flee the capital of Ethiopia’s embattled Tigray region in fear of an imminent assault after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said the army had been ordered to move in for the “final phase” of an offensive to arrest the defiant regional leaders.

Fighting reportedly remained well outside Mekele, a densely populated city of a half-million people who had been warned by the Ethiopian government of “no mercy” if they didn’t separate themselves from the Tigray leaders in time. Abiy on Thursday told residents to stay indoors and disarm as the army, with tanks, was given the order to move in. His government has vowed to protect civilians.

Food and other supplies are running out in the Tigray region of 6 million people. The United Nations continues to urge immediate access for humanitarians that is neutral and impartial. Ethiopia’s government has said a “humanitarian access route” would open under the management of the country’s Ministry of Peace, with no details.

Tigray men who fled the conflict in Ethiopia's Tigray region, stand in line to receive food cooked by Sudanese women volunteers, at Umm Rakouba refugee camp in Qadarif, eastern Sudan, Thursday, Nov. 26, 2020. Ethiopia's prime minister said Thursday the army has been ordered to move on the embattled Tigray regional capital after his 72-hour ultimatum ended for Tigray leaders to surrender, and he warned the city's half-million residents to stay indoors and disarm. (AP PhotoNariman El-Mofty)

Multiple crises are growing. Refugees from Eritrea have been in the line of fire as fighting sweeps by their camps of nearly 100,000 in the region’s north.

And the BBC has reported seeing Ethiopian forces standing by the border with Sudan, and hearing from refugees that people are being impeded from leaving Ethiopia. Ethiopia’s government has not commented on that.

More than 40,000 refugees have crossed into a remote part of Sudan where local communities and humanitarian workers struggle to provide food, shelter and care. Nearly half of the refugees are children. The spread of COVID-19 is just one concern.

Sudanese women volunteer to cook for Tigray people who fled the conflict in Ethiopia's Tigray region, at Umm Rakouba refugee camp in Qadarif, eastern Sudan, Thursday, Nov. 26, 2020. Ethiopia's prime minister said Thursday the army has been ordered to move on the embattled Tigray regional capital after his 72-hour ultimatum ended for Tigray leaders to surrender, and he warned the city's half-million residents to stay indoors and disarm. (AP PhotoNariman El-Mofty)

“We cannot keep social distancing here in the camp,” said Mohammed Rafik Nasri, from the U.N. refugee agency. “It is really challenging among the several issues in need that are growing because the number is growing. Today we are receiving a convoy of 1,000 arriving in the camp. And shelter is one of the biggest challenges that we have at the moment.”

Scared, sometimes without word of loved ones left behind, the refugees continue to share horrific accounts of the fighting and plead for it to stop.

“It makes me so sad. The country has no peace. You see one tribe killing another. It is so hard,” said one, Atsbaha Gtsadik.

Tigray people who fled the conflict in Ethiopia's Tigray region, arrive on a bus at Umm Rakouba refugee camp in Qadarif, eastern Sudan, Thursday, Nov. 26, 2020. Ethiopia's prime minister said Thursday the army has been ordered to move on the embattled Tigray regional capital after his 72-hour ultimatum ended for Tigray leaders to surrender, and he warned the city's half-million residents to stay indoors and disarm. (AP PhotoNariman El-Mofty)

With communications and transport links severed, it remains difficult to verify claims about the fighting that erupted Nov. 4 between Ethiopian forces and the heavily armed forces of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, which once dominated Ethiopia’s government but has been sidelined under Abiy’s rule. The two governments now regard each other as illegal.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people have been killed. The fighting threatens to destabilize Ethiopia, which has been described as the linchpin of the strategic Horn of Africa, and could even destabilize its neighbors.

Abiy, last year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, has rejected international “interference.” His government has said three high-level African Union envoys for the conflict can meet with him, but not with the Tigray leaders.

A general view of Umm Rakouba refugee camp which is currently hosting Tigray people who fled the conflict in Ethiopia's Tigray region, in Qadarif, eastern Sudan, Thursday, Nov. 26, 2020. Ethiopia's prime minister said Thursday the army has been ordered to move on the embattled Tigray regional capital after his 72-hour ultimatum ended for Tigray leaders to surrender, and he warned the city's half-million residents to stay indoors and disarm. (AP PhotoNariman El-Mofty)

Fay Abuelgasim in Umm Rakouba, Sudan, contributed.

Tigray men who fled the conflict in Ethiopia's Tigray region, work to build shelters at Umm Rakouba refugee camp in Qadarif, eastern Sudan, Thursday, Nov. 26, 2020. Ethiopia's prime minister said Thursday the army has been ordered to move on the embattled Tigray regional capital after his 72-hour ultimatum ended for Tigray leaders to surrender, and he warned the city's half-million residents to stay indoors and disarm. (AP PhotoNariman El-Mofty)

Tigray women who fled the conflict in Ethiopia's Tigray region, sit on a hill top overlooking Umm Rakouba refugee camp, in Qadarif, eastern Sudan, Thursday, Nov. 26, 2020. Ethiopia's prime minister said Thursday the army has been ordered to move on the embattled Tigray regional capital after his 72-hour ultimatum ended for Tigray leaders to surrender, and he warned the city's half-million residents to stay indoors and disarm. (AP PhotoNariman El-Mofty)

Tigray people who fled the conflict in Ethiopia's Tigray region, gather in their shelters at Umm Rakouba refugee camp in Qadarif, eastern Sudan, Thursday, Nov. 26, 2020. Ethiopia's prime minister said Thursday the army has been ordered to move on the embattled Tigray regional capital after his 72-hour ultimatum ended for Tigray leaders to surrender, and he warned the city's half-million residents to stay indoors and disarm. (AP PhotoNariman El-Mofty)

Tigray people who fled the conflict in Ethiopia's Tigray region, gather near their shelters at Umm Rakouba refugee camp in Qadarif, eastern Sudan, Thursday, Nov. 26, 2020. Ethiopia's prime minister said Thursday the army has been ordered to move on the embattled Tigray regional capital after his 72-hour ultimatum ended for Tigray leaders to surrender, and he warned the city's half-million residents to stay indoors and disarm. (AP PhotoNariman El-Mofty)