Ethiopia's military on Sunday threatened an all-out assault on Mekele, capital of the dissident Tigray region and seat of the local government it is seeking to dislodge, warning civilians to flee while they still can.
"The next decisive battle is to surround Mekele with tanks," Dejene Tsegaye, a military spokesman, told state broadcasters on Sunday, threatening a siege of the city.
He added a warning for Mekele's half a million residents: "Save yourself. A directive has been communicated for you to dissociate yourself from this junta, after that there will be no mercy."
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, last year's Nobel Peace Prize winner, launched a military campaign against the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) on 4 November, accusing its forces of attacking two federal military camps in the region and the party of defying his government and seeking to destabilise it.
A communications blackout in the region has made claims from both sides in the conflict difficult to verify, but hundreds of people are reported to have been killed while tens of thousands have fled the fighting into neighbouring Sudan.
Abiy's government has claimed the capture of a string of towns in recent days, including the ancient city of Aksum and the town of Edega Hamus, 100 kilometres north of Mekele.
"Defence forces have controlled Edaga Hamus city, which is on the road from Adigrat to Mekele," the Ethiopia State of Emergency Fact Check, a government agency, said Sunday. "The defence force are currently marching on the campaign's last goal, Mekele city."
The TPLF claimed Saturday that civilians had been killed during a "heavy bombardment" of Adigrat town by the Ethiopian Defence Forces (EDF). The government insists it does not target civilians.
Allies to bitter enemies
The TPLF led the overthrow of Mengistu Hailemariam, head of Ethiopia's military Derg regime, in 1991 and dominated the country's politics until Abiy became prime minister in 2018.
The party continues to rule Tigray, one of 10 regional states under Ethiopia's system of ethnic federalism whereby regions are delineated by ethnicity and language.
TPLF leaders have complained of being sidelined by Abiy and blamed for the country's woes. The bitter feud with the central government led the TPLF to hold their own elections this year in defiance of a national postponement due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Abiy has spurned all calls for peace, including from the African Union, which plans to send three former national presidents as special envoys in the coming days, the US and the UN which has warned of a looming humanitarian disaster.
His government regards the TPLF as a criminal administration and appears intent on winning the military battle rather than negotiating.
Military action has already spread beyond Tigray's borders with the TPLF firing rockets at Asmara, the capital of neighbouring Eritrea to the north, which it accuses of supporting the Ethiopian government, and the city of Bahir Dar to the southwest.
The campaign has seen warplanes bombing Tigray and heavy fighting, while Amnesty International has documented a gruesome massacre in which "scores, and likely hundreds, of people were stabbed or hacked to death" in the southwestern town of Mai-Kadra.
The UN has called for the opening of humanitarian corridors to allow aid agencies access, and has said it is preparing for as many as 200,000 refugees to flee unrest in the coming months.