Ethiopian lawmakers voted Saturday to replace the current government of the federal state of Tigray, after the army launched air strikes to destroy military assets in the region in a worsening internal conflict.
Fears are mounting over the prospect of civil war after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed this week sent federal troops and aircraft into the region with which Addis Ababa has been embroiled in a bitter feud.
While communication remained blacked out in Tigray, reports of dead and wounded soldiers mounted in neighbouring Amhara region, where a humanitarian aid worker said three died and 35 were treated on Saturday. On Friday 105 were reported injured and five killed in the region.
Funeral processions for slain militia fighters clogged a road leading north of the city of Gondar in Amhara. As women wailed, militiamen shot their rifles into the air to honour their fallen comrades while police officers struggle to clear the way for traffic.
Abiy said Friday that air strikes had already neutralised military hardware such as rockets in the Tigray capital Mekele.
Three days after he announced a military operation against the state's ruling Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) who he has described as a "criminal clique", lawmakers voted to abolish the state government and form a caretaker administration.
"The caretaker administration will be mandated with conducting a constitutionally acceptable election and to implement decisions passed on by the federal government," the state-owned Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation reported.
- 'Graveyard, not playground' -
A statement from the Tigray administration slammed the move as a "joke" that was "unthinkable let alone implementable", accusing Abiy of wanting to install his "puppets" in the region.
"Tigray will be the graveyard not a playground of a foreign force and the fascist, unitary clique," read the statement which said the government had "rained bombs" upon its people.
While the statement accused Addis Ababa of "war-mongering", it said Tigray's preference remained peace and dialogue and that "the efforts for peace will continue until the last minute."
On Saturday Abiy wrote on Twitter that "criminal elements cannot escape the rule of law under the guise of seeking reconciliation and a call for dialogue."
Despite growing international alarm, Abiy -- who won the Nobel Peace Prize last year -- has vowed there will be more air strikes on Tigray, urging civilians to avoid gatherings so as to avoid "collateral damage."
Abiy's statement indicated military operations were going well for federal forces, but a communications blackout in Tigray made this claim impossible to verify.
A UN source told AFP that an internal security report said Tigrayan forces held Ethiopia's Northern Command headquarters in Mekele.
The key base is one of the most heavily armoured in the country, a legacy of Ethiopia's war with neighbouring Eritrea which borders the Tigray region.
- Long-simmering feud -
The Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) dominated politics in Ethiopia for nearly three decades before Abiy came to power in 2018 on the back of anti-government protests.
Tigrayans make up only about six percent of a population of more than 110 million people.
Their state is one of 10 ethnic-based federal regions that make up the country.
Under Abiy, Tigray's leaders have complained of being unfairly targeted in corruption prosecutions, removed from top positions and broadly scapegoated for the country's woes.
The feud became more intense after Tigray held its own elections in September, defying Abiy's government which had decided to postpone national polls due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Addis Ababa ruled the Tigray government was unlawful and in return Tigray said it no longer recognised Abiy's administration.
The federal government then slashed funding to the region, which the TPLF said was "tantamount to an act of war".
As rhetoric heated up, Abiy announced Wednesday he had ordered military operations in Tigray in response to an "attack" on a federal military camp by the TPLF.
The TPLF denies the attack occurred and accuses Abiy of concocting the story to justify deploying the military against it.
Unless the fighting stops soon, conflict in Tigray "will be devastating not just for the country but for the entire Horn of Africa," International Crisis Group said in a statement this week.
Given Tigray's considerable military capabilities and its estimated 250,000 troops, war could be "lengthy and bloody", it said.