Addis Ababa-Both sides in Ethiopia’s raging internal conflict claimed military successes on Wednesday, creating a muddied picture of fighting even as the government promised it would soon be over.

A communications blackout in the northern Tigray region, where Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has ordered military operations against the ruling party, has made it difficult to get a clear view of hostilities now entering their third week.

“We’re inflicting heavy defeats on all fronts against the forces that came to attack us,” Tigrayan leader Debretsion Gebremichael said in a statement, referring to federal forces. “I call upon all the Tigrayan people to go out en masse to drive out the invaders,” he added. 

But army chief Berhanu Jula said in a statement of his own that Ethiopia’s army was “winning on all fronts” and that the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) was “in a state of desperation.” 

“The TPLF’s plan to drag Ethiopia into civil war and tear it apart has failed. It is currently in a desperate mode as it is surrounded,” Berhanu said. 

Abiy, last year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, announced the military campaign in Tigray on November 4, saying it was in response to TPLF attacks on federal military camps.

It marked a dramatic escalation of his long-running feud with the TPLF, an organisation that dominated Ethiopian politics for nearly three decades before Abiy took office in 2018.

Tensions ramped up after Tigray held its own elections in September -- defying a nationwide ban on polls because of coronavirus -- and tried to brand Abiy an illegitimate ruler.

Hospitals under strain

The UN refugee agency said Tuesday that around 27,000 Ethiopians had fled across the border into Sudan -- a figure now rising by around 4,000 people each day. 

A spokesman warned of “a full-blown humanitarian crisis” as the UN and aid organisations negotiated with the government to get full access to Tigray.

Hundreds of combatants are said to have died in fighting, but casualty totals so far are rough estimates.  

On Wednesday the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said the Ethiopia Red Cross Society had “transported hundreds of people injured in areas affected by clashes.” 

The organisation said hospitals in Tigray and neighbouring Amhara region “urgently need hospital beds, mattresses, blankets and bedsheets.”

One hospital in the Amhara city of Gondar “has been receiving large numbers of critically injured patients with more than 400 treated so far in the facility,” the ICRC said.

Three Ethiopia Red Cross ambulances have been attacked in “a worrying sign that medical workers and first responders are not being respected and protected”, though the ICRC noted that the details of the attacks were “not clear”.  

- ‘Final’ push -