ADDIS ABABA, October 30 (Reuters) – Tigrayan rebel forces announced on Saturday that they had captured the strategic town of Dessie, in Ethiopia’s Amhara region, where tens of thousands of Amharas have sought refuge from escalating fighting, but the government denied.
The fighters pushed back Ethiopian government forces from Dessie and headed for the town of Kombolcha, Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) spokesperson Getachew Reda told Reuters by satellite phone from an undisclosed location.
He said the Tigrayan forces captured many Ethiopian soldiers.
Legesse Tulu, the government spokesman, told Reuters in a text message that the city was still under the control of the Ethiopian government and said the claims by Tigrayan forces were “fabricated propaganda.”
Ethiopian army spokesman Col. Getnet Adane referred Reuters to the federal government. Amhara spokesman Gizachew Muluneh, the mayor of Dessie and a city spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment.
Reuters could not independently verify the count on each side, as phone lines in Dessie appeared to be cut on Saturday afternoon.
The capture of Dessie would be a strategic gain for the Tigrayan fighters in the face of central government forces trying to dislodge them from the Amhara region.
The large city is some 385 km (240 miles) from the capital, Addis Ababa, and is the southernmost Amhara that the TPLF has reached since entering the region in July.
A school principal in Dessie said he saw Ethiopian soldiers withdrawing from the town on Saturday morning towards Kombolcha and that electricity in the town had been cut since Friday.
Another resident of Dessie also said the town had no power and the Federal Army had left. Both said they had heard that Tigrayan fighters were in town but had not seen them. The two residents spoke on condition of anonymity.
War erupted almost a year ago between federal troops and the TPLF. Thousands of people have been killed and over 2 million people have been forced to flee.
Tigrayan forces were initially pushed back, but recaptured most of the region in July and pushed into neighboring areas of Amhara and Afar.
In mid-October, Tigrayan forces said the army had launched a ground offensive to drive them out of Amhara. The military said on Thursday there was heavy fighting there, but accused Tigrayian forces of having started it.
Report by Addis Ababa Newsroom Editing by Mark Heinrich, Alison Williams and Frances Kerry
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