Ethiopian PM rejects Tigray conflict talks in AU meeting

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Tigray men who fled the conflict in Ethiopia's Tigray region, work to build shelters at Umm Rakouba refugee camp in Qadarif, eastern Sudan, Thursday, Nov. 26, 2020. Ethiopia's prime minister said Thursday the army has been ordered to move on the embattled Tigray regional capital after his 72-hour ultimatum ended for Tigray leaders to surrender, and he warned the city's half-million residents to stay indoors and disarm. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)

NAIROBI – Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed again ruled out dialogue with the leaders of the defiant Tigray region Friday but said he was willing to speak to representatives "operating legally” there during a meeting with three African Union special envoys trying to end the deadly conflict between federal troops and the region's forces.

The meeting came as the Ethiopian News Agency reported the military's capture of several key towns around the Tigray capital of Mekele, and as more people fled the city ahead of a promised “final phase” of the offensive. Meanwhile, the number of people managing to cross the border into Sudan has slowed to a trickle, raising concerns they are being blocked from leaving.

The Nobel Peace Prize-winning prime minister, who has resisted international mediation as “interference,” said he appreciated the AU envoys’ “elderly concern” but told them his government’s failure to enforce the rule of law in Tigray would “nurture a culture of impunity with devastating cost to the survival of the country,” according to his office.

Abiy’s government and the regional one run by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front each consider the other illegitimate.

There was no word from the three AU envoys, former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, former Mozambique President Joaquim Chissano and former South African President Kgalema Motlanthe. AU spokeswoman Ebba Kalondo did not say whether they can meet with TPLF leaders, something Abiy's office has rejected.

“Not possible,” senior Ethiopian official Redwan Hussein said in a message to the AP. “Above all, TPLF leadership is still at large.” He called reports that the TPLF had appointed an envoy to discuss an immediate cease-fire with the international community “masquerading.”

Fighting reportedly remained well outside Mekele, a densely populated city of a half-million people who have been warned by the Ethiopian government that they will be shown “no mercy” if they don't distance themselves from the region's leaders.

Tigray has been almost entirely cut off from the outside world since Nov. 4, when Abiy announced a military offensive in response to a TPLF attack on a military base. That makes it difficult to verify claims about the fighting, but humanitarians have said at least hundreds of people have been killed.