“Our orders were to leave the cities alone, and to encircle them, to cut the forces that were within the towns from their chain of commands,” he added, saying the elite Republican Guard captured Mekelle without shooting as TPLF conscripts deserted.
The TPLF was not immediately available to comment. On Sunday, the Red Cross said Mekelle’s hospitals were low on supplies and bodybags, but did not give casualty figures.
It is not clear how many fighters the TPLF has left, but Debretsion’s defiance raises the specter of a drawn-out insurgency. The battle-hardened TPLF helped topple Ethiopia’s Marxist dictatorship in 1991 and knows how to exploit its mountains and borders with Sudan and Eritrea.
Abiy, whose parents are from the larger Oromo and Amharic groups, said he had felt Ethiopia’s ethnic frictions even when taking office as prime minister, where he felt like a “prisoner.” He said security services dominated by Tigrayans discouraged him from traveling round Ethiopia.
There are more than 80 ethnicities in Ethiopia, which operates as a federation of 10 regions run by separate groups.
Abiy said he had directed reforms to reduce Tigrayans in senior military positions from more than 60% to a quarter of the top brass. Tigrayans make up roughly 6% of the population.
Though urging the more than 45,000 refugees in Sudan to return, the prime minister said it was suspicious so many of them were young males and if any had a role in an alleged massacre of non-Tigrayans in Mai Kadra they should face justice.
The government blamed the killings on a Tigrayan youth group with the aid of local forces, but the TPLF denied any collusion.
(Reporting by Addis Ababa newsroom, and Duncan Miriri and David Lewis in Nairobi; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by William Maclean, Jon Boyle and Angus MacSwan)