The United Nations has expressed concern about possible war crimes ahead of a threat by the Ethiopian army to start an assault on the northern Tigray region’s capital.
Fighting between Ethiopia’s central government and forces in Tigray has been going on for almost three weeks.
Hundreds have reportedly been killed and tens of thousands have fled.
Aid groups fear the conflict could trigger a humanitarian crisis and destabilise East Africa.
The UN said it was alarmed by the threat of major hostilities a day before the Ethiopian army said it would advance on Tigray’s capital Mekelle, home to about 500,000 people.
On Sunday, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed issued a 72-hour ultimatum to Tigray’s forces, telling them to surrender as they were “at a point of no return”.
But Tigray’s forces have vowed to keep fighting, with their leader Debretsion Gebremichael saying they were “ready to die in defence of our right to administer our region”.
The conflict started after Ethiopia’s central government accused the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), a political party which controls Tigray, of holding an illegal election and attacking a military base to steal weapons.
In response, Mr Abiy – a former Nobel Peace Prize winner – ordered a military offensive against forces in Tigray, accusing them of treason.
The TPLF sees the central government as illegitimate, arguing Mr Abiy does not have a mandate to lead the country after postponing national elections because of coronavirus.
What did the UN say?
Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, expressed “alarm at reports of a heavy build-up of tanks and artillery around Mekelle”.
She called on all sides to give “clear and unambiguous orders to their forces” to spare civilians.
“The highly aggressive rhetoric on both sides regarding the fight for Mekelle is dangerously provocative and risks placing already vulnerable and frightened civilians in grave danger,” Ms Bachelet said. “I fear such rhetoric will lead to further violations of international humanitarian law.”
The rhetoric has been ramped up in recent days. On Sunday, the Ethiopian army said “there will be no mercy” for Mekelle’s residents when its soldiers “encircle” the city.
Such talk could constitute a war crime, Ms Bachelet said.
Mr Abiy has repeatedly said the Ethiopian army would protect civilians in its campaign against forces in Tigray.
But Ms Bachelet said a virtual communications blackout in Tigray is making it difficult for the UN to monitor the human rights and humanitarian situation.
“Reports continue to emerge of arbitrary arrests and detentions, killings, as well as discrimination and stigmatisation of ethnic Tigrays,” the UN said.
The UN Security Council is due to hold its first meeting on Tuesday to discuss the fighting in Tigray.
What is the fighting about?
The conflict is rooted in longstanding tension between the TPLF, the powerful regional party, and Ethiopia’s central government.
When Mr Abiy postponed a national election because of coronavirus in June, relations deteriorated.
The TPLF said the central government’s mandate to rule had expired, arguing that Mr Abiy had not been tested in a national election.
In September the party held its own election, which the central government said was “illegal”.
Then, on 4 November, the Ethiopian prime minister announced an operation against the TPLF, accusing its forces of attacking the army’s northern command headquarters in Mekelle.
The TPLF has rejected the allegations.
Its fighters, drawn mostly from a paramilitary unit and a well-drilled local militia, are thought to number about 250,000. Analysts believe the conflict could be long and bloody given the strength of Tigray’s forces.
How bad is the situation?
Aid agencies have no access to the conflict zone, but they fear that thousands of civilians may have been killed since fighting erupted at the beginning of November.
At least 40,000 refugees have already crossed into neighbouring Sudan. The UN refugee agency has said it is preparing for up to 200,000 people to arrive over the next six months if the fighting continues.
With reports of rocket fire on Ethiopia’s border with neighbouring countries, there are concerns that the conflict could extend into a wider war.
Meanwhile, the UN has raised concerns about the influx of refugees into Sudan, which it says could destabilise a nation already supporting about a million people displaced from other African countries.
Many of the refugees arriving in Sudan are believed to be children. Aid agencies say an immediate ceasefire would allow them to help thousands of civilians still trapped inside Ethiopia.
Aid agencies are appealing for $50m (£38m) for food and shelter for the new arrivals.
Five things about Tigray:
1. The Kingdom of Aksum was centred in the region. Described as one of the greatest civilisations of the ancient world, it was once the most powerful state between the Roman and Persian empires.
2. The ruins of the city of Aksum are a UN World Heritage Site. The site, dating from between the 1st and 13th Century AD, features obelisks, castles, royal tombs and a church which is believed by some to house the Ark of the Covenant.
3. Most people in Tigray are Ethiopian Orthodox Christians. The region’s Christian roots stretch back 1,600 years.
4. The region’s main language is Tigrinya, a Semitic dialect with at least seven million speakers worldwide.
5. Sesame is a major cash crop, exported to the US, China and other countries.