Ethiopia said Thursday that rebels from war-hit Tigray had been routed from the neighbouring region of Afar, as both sides traded blame for civilian casualties during a "massacre" that left scores of people dead.
The office of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) had "suffered great losses" and were forced to retreat from Afar, two months after the rebels launched incursions into the region -- the latest turn in a 10-month war.
"TPLF's claims of having withdrawn from the Afar region -- and I put it quote unquote -- that is not true. They have been routed," Abiy's spokeswoman Billene Seyoum told a press conference.
"The Afar militia has been working in close collaboration with the national defence forces and the TPLF have sustained a lot of losses over the past weeks," she added.
TPLF spokesman Getachew Reda disputed the claim in a series of Twitter posts.
"#Abiy & Co are trying to have their supporters believe that they are making advances in battlefields in #Amhara and #Afar: they are not," he said, adding that "thousands are being mopped down by our forces" daily.
But he made no mention of operations in Afar, instead highlighting fighting in three Amhara towns.
"There was no fighting in #Afar, and the fighting in Amhara region is proceeding in a manner that will make sure #Abiy cannot lie his way out," he said.
TPLF officials could not be reached for comment, and troop movements in Afar could not be independently verified.
Northern Ethiopia has been wracked by violence since last November when Abiy, the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner, sent troops into Tigray, saying the move was in response to attacks on army camps by the TPLF, then the region's ruling party.
- Massacre probe -
The back-and-forth came one day after officials and medics in Amhara region accused the TPLF of massacring 125 civilians in the Amhara village of Chenna.
The toll could not be independently verified and AFP was not able to confirm whether those killed were civilians or combatants.
Getachew said Wednesday the rebels "categorically reject claims of our forces' involvement in the killing of civilians".
He elaborated Thursday, accusing Abiy of sending "priests, women and children" into battle as cannon fodder.
"Our forces are trying to avoid the slaughter of children & women as best they can," he said.
"We are taking very measured steps to avoid unnecessary loss of press ganged civilians while relentlessly destroying whatever is left of the capabilities of enemy forces."
Billene said Thursday the death toll in Chenna was "an estimated 200 innocent civilians, which includes women, children, elders and deacons."
She said officials had formed a committee to investigate the incident.
The African Union last week urged Abiy's government to step up efforts to ensure humanitarian access to Tigray to prevent starvation, as aid workers struggle to reach desperate populations.
Abiy rejected early appeals from high-level AU envoys for talks with Tigrayan leaders, sticking to his line that the conflict is a limited "law and order" operation.
On Thursday, Billene said Ethiopia was considering offers by neighbouring countries to help facilitate a solution to the conflict.
"These efforts are seen positively by the Ethiopian government and as an extension of goodwill, and they are being reviewed."