Ethiopia's prime minister warned on Tuesday that a deadline for rebel northern forces to lay down arms had expired, paving the way for an advance on the Tigray region's capital in a two-week conflict shaking the Horn of Africa.
"The final critical act of law enforcement will be done in the coming days," Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said, noting a three-day ultimatum to surrender was over.
Africa's youngest leader and the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Abiy launched air strikes and a ground offensive on Nov. 4 after accusing former comrades and the local ruling party, the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), of armed revolt.
Tigrayan leaders say Abiy, 44, who comes from the largest ethnic group the Oromo, has persecuted and purged them from government and security positions since taking office in 2018.
Tigrayan forces have fired rockets into the neighbouring nation of Eritrea, widening a conflict which has already killed hundreds - one diplomatic source said thousands - of combatants and civilians, and sent about 30,000 refugees into Sudan.
"How could they kill their own brothers and sisters? This is not our custom," Addis Ababa resident Fitawrari Million said of the Tigrayan leaders during a rally to honour federal soldiers.
"Ethiopians should not fight Ethiopians. This is a bad war. It shouldn't have happened," added another resident of the capital, Misrak Gudisa.
'PEOPLE ARE SCARED'
The United Nations said a "full-scale humanitarian crisis" was unfolding. With communications largely down and media barred, Reuters could not independently verify assertions by either side nor the situation on the ground.
"People are coming out of Ethiopia really scared, afraid, with stories saying they have been fleeing heavy fighting and there's no sign of the fighting stopping," said Babar Baloch, spokesman of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Abiy's warning came after his air force struck unspecified TPLF targets outside Tigray's capital Mekelle.
Tigray's leaders have accused federal forces of knocking out a dam and a sugar factory as well as "mercilessly" attacking people in the region of more than 5 million.
The government denies attacking civilians.
After an Amnesty International report of a massacre of scores of labourers, where it cited witnesses blaming TPLF forces, the UN rights chief said war crimes may have been committed.
In a sign the push towards Mekelle may not be going as well as Abiy wants, TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael told Reuters battles were still going on around the southern town of Alamata which federal troops said they seized the previous day.
An Ethiopian spokesman could not be reached for comment.
With hundreds of thousands of Tigrayans dependent on food aid even before the conflict, suffering is worsening even as humanitarian workers are scaling back for security reasons.
Two convoys of buses and cars moved about 600 people, mainly foreigners with international organisations, out of Tigray to the capital Addis Ababa this week, diplomats said.
The United Nations and states around Europe and Africa are clamouring for talks and even the Nobel committee voiced concern in rare comment on a past laureate's actions.
But Abiy has said he will only negotiate when rule of law is restored in Tigray, whose leaders are former military comrades whom he also partnered in government until 2018.
On Monday, his foreign minister went to Uganda and Kenya, while a Nigerian former president flew to Addis Ababa. Diplomats described a growing push for negotiations, but Ethiopia said it was simply explaining an internal conflict to outsiders.
Ethiopia, Africa's second-most populous country, has long been a powerful Western ally in a poor and turbulent region.
The fighting could jeopardise the recent opening up of Ethiopia's economy, stir ethnic bloodshed elsewhere around the vast nation of 115 million people, and tarnish the reputation of Abiy. He won his Nobel for pursuing peace with Eritrea and had also drawn praise for opening up a repressive political system, though arrests and media curbs had tainted that of late.
The federal forces comprise around 140,000 personnel and are battle-hardened from fighting in Somalia, rebellious border regions and Eritrea in the past. But many senior officers were Tigrayan, much powerful weaponry is there, and the TPLF has seized the powerful Northern Command's headquarters in Mekelle.
The TPLF itself is a formidable rival also with a proud history: it spearheaded the rebel march to Addis Ababa that ousted a Marxist dictatorship in 1991 and bore the brunt of the 1998-2000 war with Eritrea that killed hundreds of thousands.
State-affiliated Fana TV said Ethiopia had frozen the bank accounts of 34 TPLF institutions including construction, trading, engineering, printing, electrical and bus companies.