Rebels have attacked an airport in northeast Ethiopia, the country’s state-run media has said, having been given 72 hours to surrender by the prime minister.
Forces from the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which have been battling with soldiers deployed by the central government, destroyed an airport in the ancient town of Axum, according to state-affiliated media.
Axum, which lies near the border with Eritrea, 133 miles (214km) north of the regional capital, Mekelle, is a popular tourist draw and UNESCO World Heritage site.
Its history and ruins, including fourth-century obelisks, are what give Ethiopia its claim to be one of the world’s oldest centres of Christianity.
Legend says the town was once home to the Queen of Sheba, who features in both the Bible and the Koran, and that the Ark of the Covenant was once housed in one of its churches.
News of the assault in Axum – reported by the state-affiliated Fana broadcaster – came after Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, gave rebels 72 hours to lay down their arms before federal troops attacked Mekelle.
They are currently circling the city at a range of about 30 miles, seemingly ready to strike if the demand is not met by Wednesday.
The threat from the prime minister was a cover for government forces to regroup after a series of defeats, TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael told Reuters news agency.
But there was no immediate response from either side to the other’s latest comments, and Reuters could not confirm their statements.
Claims by all sides are hard to verify because phone and internet communication has been taken down in Tigray, a mountainous northern zone of five million people, cutting it off from the world.
Hundreds, possibly thousands, have been killed in fighting and air strikes that erupted on 4 November, sending about 40,000 refugees into neighbouring Sudan.
The conflict, a long-running power struggle between Addis Ababa and the region’s leaders, has spread beyond Tigray, with the TPLF firing rockets into both the neighbouring Amhara region and across the border to Eritrea.
Some rockets fired into Amhara were targeted at the city of Bahir Dar, the government has said.
The United Nations is among those calling for mediation, but to little avail.
Mr Abiy’s government has repeatedly said it is only targeting TPLF leaders and facilities to restore law and order after they rose up against federal troops. It denies hitting civilians.
Its taskforce for the Tigray conflict said in a statement: “Our women and men in uniform have shown great care to protect civilians from harm during the law enforcement operation they have carried out in Tigray so far.”
The TPLF says Mr Abiy has “invaded” its region to dominate it and is inflicting “merciless” damage on Tigrayans.
Mr Gebremichael said in a text message to Reuters on Monday: “We are people of principle and are ready to die in defence of our right to administer our region.”