The Ethiopian government has claimed fighters from the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) have killed more than 100 “youth residents” in the town of Kombolcha, as the rival sides claimed control of the town in the country’s Amhara region.
The government said on Monday the youth were “summarily executed” by the group, as residents reported an hours-long gunfight over the town that started the night before.
“The international community should not turn a blind eye to such atrocities,” the government communication service said on Twitter.
The TPLF did not immediately respond to the government’s accusation, which came hours after a spokesperson for the TPLF claimed the group had captured Kombolcha and its airport.
The government, however, has contested the rebel claim the TPLF controls the town, about 380km (235 miles) north of the capital, Addis Ababa.
Al Jazeera reports it could not independently verify the claims, with northern Ethiopia remaining under a communications blackout and access for journalists restricted.
If true, the advance would represent a major strategic gain for the Tigrayan fighters. It would be the furthest south the group had reached since pushing into the Amhara region from its more northern stronghold of Tigray in July.
The capture would also signify the TPLF was heading closer to the Ethiopian capital.
Residents of Kombolcha described to the AFP news agency non-stop gunfire overnight and into the early hours on Monday, with some reporting what appeared to be an air raid on the town’s outskirts around midnight.
Government forces have been carrying out a string of aerial bombardments of Tigray over the last two weeks, but there have been no previous reports of bombings in the Amhara region.
The bombings have drawn international censure and disrupted the United Nations’ access to the region where an estimated 400,000 people face famine-like conditions under a de facto aid blockade.
The Ethiopian government has denied air attacks near Kombolcha.
The East African nation’s conflict broke out last November, when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent troops into the Tigray region, in what he said was a response to a deadly attack on a military base by rebels. The well-armed TPLF had dominated the country’s military and government before Abiy took office in 2018.
While initially beaten back, Tigrayan forces have since recaptured most of Tigray and have begun pushing into the neighbouring Amhara and Afar regions. They have said their advance is meant to pressure the government into lifting a months-long blockade on Tigray, home to about six million.
Both sides have been accused of committing abuses amid the fighting.
On Sunday, Abiy again urged citizens to join the fight against the TPLF.
“Our people should march … with any weapon and resources they have to defend, repulse and bury the terrorist TPLF,” he said in a Facebook post.
Meanwhile, the government of the Amhara region ordered almost all government institutions to stop their regular activities and join the war effort. It also banned most activities in cities and towns after 8 pm.
That came a day after Tigrayan fighters claimed they had seized the nearby town of Dessie, which is also in the Amhara region. The government denied the capture.
Witnesses told the AFP that renewed gunfighting had also broken out in Dessie on Sunday.
“We saw TPLF entering through the main road in the morning, we ran to our homes,” a 32-year-old resident who gave his name only as Tadesse told the news agency.
United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Monday he was alarmed by reports that TPLF forces had taken over the two key Ethiopian towns of Dessie and Kombolcha.
“Continued fighting prolongs the dire humanitarian crisis in northern Ethiopia,” he tweeted.
“All parties must stop military operations and begin ceasefire negotiations without preconditions.”