Addis Ababa — Ethiopian military Saturday took control of key locations in northern Tigray, including the main airport Mekele, marking a major victory in the government's ongoing law enforcement operation.
Diplomatic sources said the soldiers have also freed thousands of their subdued soldiers and were hunting down for the militias and their leaders.
"It is a major win for the Ethiopian government," one source said, "the military has taken control of all the key regions, including the airport."
Another diplomatic source told Capital FM News that "the major part of the operation is completed. They (military) are now looking for the culprits after freeing thousands of their subdued soldiers who were taken when the Tigray militia attacked the northern command."
There was heavy shelling with heavy weaponry and artillery in the capital of Ethiopia's Tigray region Saturday as the city of half a million people braced for an all-out offensive by government forces against its dissident leaders.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, winner of last year's Nobel Peace Prize, announced November 4 he had ordered military operations against Tigray's ruling party, the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF).
More than three weeks of fierce fighting has left thousands dead. Tens of thousands have streamed over the border into Sudan, and displacement within Tigray is believed to be widespread.
Abiy announced Thursday he had ordered a "final" offensive and Ethiopia's military said it had encircled Mekele.
But Addis Ababa Saturday said the "aerial engagement has been precise and targets only TPLF's military depot, weaponry and arsenals", avoiding "civilian facilities".
The TPLF dominated Ethiopian politics for nearly three decades before Abiy came to power in 2018, and it fought a brutal border war with Eritrea that killed tens of thousands between 1998 and 2000.
Abiy won his Nobel in large part for initiating a rapprochement with Isaias in 2018.
Ethiopia has denied enlisting Eritrean military support against Tigray but has acknowledged using Eritrean territory.
Global concern has heightened in recent days with world leaders and human rights groups warning of possible rules of war violations during operations.
The UN has spent weeks lobbying -- so far unsuccessfully -- for full access to Tigray.
Abiy's office said this week it would open a "humanitarian access route". Hundreds of UN and international NGO workers are currently in Mekele, but they are grappling with shortages of food, cash and other essentials.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said it had received "1,300 requests from people in Ethiopia and abroad frantically looking to contact their relatives," adding, "We know this is just the tip of the iceberg."
Pope Francis on Saturday tweeted for "everyone to pray for #Ethiopia where armed clashes have intensified and are causing a serious humanitarian situation".
Abiy's government has said the military campaign in Tigray was triggered by attacks by pro-TPLF forces on federal army camps in Tigray beginning the night of November 3.
Abiy has repeatedly snubbed international calls for a halt to fighting and negotiations with TPLF leaders, saying they need to be disarmed and apprehended.
On Friday he met with three African ex-leaders -- Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia and Kgalema Motlanthe of South Africa -- dispatched by the African Union as mediators.
An AU statement said Abiy told envoys that military operations in Tigray "would not last long".
The military expects to take control of Mekele "within a few days", according to a report Saturday from state-affiliated Fana Broadcasting Corporate.