The Tigrayan forces on Tuesday had not accepted the truce.
The Ethiopian military has controlled much of Tigray since last November, when it launched a major assault on the region with the support of Eritrean soldiers and local ethnic militias in an attempt to overthrow the region’s ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), in power. The armed wing of the TPLF, known as the Tigray Defense Force, had regularly prepared for the offensive and in recent days launched a coordinated push to retake Mekelle.
The Tigrayan counterattack was a blow to Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who declared victory at the end of November last year when the Ethiopian army invaded the city of half a million people.
Since then, the ongoing conflict has claimed thousands of lives, forced millions to flee, fueled famine and seriously damaged the international reputation of the Ethiopian leader who won the Nobel Peace Prize.
Less than a week after the start of the Tigrayan forces’ offensive, the Ethiopian army had withdrawn from the capital, a UN official told CNN on Monday. The official spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals from the Ethiopian government.
The news was greeted with cheers in Mekelle, and CNN reporters spoke to locals who saw people flock to the streets to celebrate, despite calls to stay indoors. Fireworks could also be heard as the celebrations continued into the night.
A spokesman for the Tigray regional government, Getachew Reda, said on Monday that his forces had “broken the backbone of the Ethiopian army” after fighting nine divisions to take the capital.
He said he would celebrate the town’s takeover with friends tonight, but the conflict was far from over. “People are celebrating, the capital has been liberated from our enemies, but as far as I’m concerned, there isn’t much to celebrate because we still have fights to do,” Reda told CNN via phone.
“Our targets degrade the enemy’s combat capabilities. It is a criminal army and we will follow it everywhere to make sure it does not have the capacity to return.”
“We will not stop until Tigray has been freed of all enemy forces. We will do whatever it takes,” he concluded.
CNN has contacted the Ethiopian government for comment, but has yet to receive a response. However, the government said in a statement on Monday broadcast by state broadcaster EBC that it had accepted a ceasefire request from the interim government of Tigray, loyal to the Addis Ababa executive.
According to the statement, the unilateral ceasefire will last across the region until the end of the crucial planting season in Tigray, which ends at the end of September.
For the past seven months, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, with the help of neighboring Eritrea, has been in conflict with the region’s elected leaders, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Tigray (TPLF).
At least 30 people died last week when a government airstrike hit a busy market in the small town of Togoga, west of Mekelle, eyewitnesses and medics told CNN.
The airstrike marked one of the deadliest attacks in the eight-month war that fueled famine, forced millions to flee and severely damaged the reputation of Nobel Peace Prize winner Abiy.
Allegations of damage and looting
Reda, the regional government spokesperson, also accused the retreating Ethiopian army of looting banks and damaging critical infrastructure as it left Mekelle. “We decided to focus on taking control of the capital rather than pursuing the enemy because they were targeting the banks, vandalizing property,” he explained.
Earlier Monday, witnesses told CNN that Ethiopian soldiers were seen entering banks, press offices and aid agency offices. A UN official also told CNN that the offices of the International Organization for Migration, UNICEF and the World Food Program were raided by Ethiopian forces around 4 p.m. local time.
UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore condemned the action “in the strongest terms”.
“Members of the Ethiopian National Defense Forces walked into our office in Mekele, Tigray, Ethiopia today and dismantled our VSAT equipment,” she said. “This act violates the privileges and immunities of the United Nations and the rules of international humanitarian law concerning respect for objects of humanitarian relief.”
UN spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric joined in criticism of Ethiopian forces at the request of UN journalists in New York.
“We condemn all attacks on humanitarian workers and goods and once again remind all parties of their obligations under international humanitarian law,” Dujarric told reporters on Monday. “The safety of our staff is a priority and we do everything we can to guarantee it. “
“All parties must ensure the protection of civilians and that all humanitarian assistance, provided by the United Nations, be in accordance with humanitarian principles,” he also said.
This story has been updated.
CNN’s Feleke of Bethlehem reported from Nairobi, and Richard Roth and Kristina Sgueglia from New York.