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Ethiopian government soldiers ride in the back of a truck on a road near Agula, north of Mekele, in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia. Ethiopia's government said in a statement carried by state media on June 28, 2021, that it has 'positively accepted' a call for an immediate, unilateral cease-fire in its Tigray region after nearly eight months of deadly conflict.Ben Curtis/The Associated Press

Thousands of flag-waving Tigrayans danced and celebrated in the streets of their capital, Mekelle, as resurgent rebels captured the city that had fallen to Ethiopian troops last year.

The loss of Tigray’s capital is a major setback for the Ethiopian military, which had seized control of Mekelle last November, just weeks after the beginning of the war that has killed thousands of civilians and fighters in the rebellious region.

As the rebels entered the city on Monday afternoon, the Ethiopian government declared an “unconditional, unilateral ceasefire” in Tigray for humanitarian reasons, according to state media.

The rebels, calling themselves the Tigray Defence Forces (TDF), have reportedly made military gains in several parts of the region over the past week, regaining control of key towns as the Ethiopian troops retreated. But much of Tigray is still held by Ethiopian and Eritrean forces, despite international demands for the withdrawal of the Eritrean troops.

The rebels, reinforced by thousands of volunteers, launched an offensive this month that led to heavy fighting and TDF victories in several Tigrayan towns and districts. The rebels claimed to have captured thousands of Ethiopian troops.

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By Monday morning, there were reports that Ethiopian politicians and soldiers in Mekelle were preparing to abandon the besieged city, with regional government officials quitting their posts and fleeing. Local television broadcasting was halted. By the afternoon, Ethiopian soldiers were pulling out of the city in commandeered local vehicles piled high with looted goods from shops and offices, according to local and international media reports.

Among those targeted by the retreating Ethiopian troops were United Nations relief agencies that have been struggling to respond to the widespread hunger and emerging famine in Tigray. Soldiers entered the Mekelle offices of the UN children’s agency, Unicef, and dismantled the satellite communications system that the agency was using, a Unicef official said.

“I condemn this action in the strongest terms,” Unicef executive director Henrietta Fore said.

“This act violates UN privileges and immunities and the rules of international humanitarian law,” she said in a statement. “Unicef’s priority in Tigray, and across Ethiopia, is to help the most vulnerable children, including the 140,000 children already facing famine-like conditions. We are not, and should never be, a target.”

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Soon after the Ethiopian withdrawal from Mekelle, the TDF rebels drove into the city in their vehicles. Tigrayans celebrated by cheering, singing, igniting fireworks and shooting guns in the air.

It was unclear whether the proposed ceasefire will hold. The Ethiopian government said it is intended to allow farmers to till and plant their fields, and to help relief agencies operate more freely. Late on Monday, there were reports that the rebels had rejected the ceasefire and would push on for a broader victory.

The war began last November when Ethiopia sent troops into Tigray to subdue the rebellious regional government, which had called an election in defiance of federal government orders. The region’s ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), had dominated the Ethiopian government for decades until Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed gained power in 2018. The TPLF had also spearheaded a protracted border war with neighbouring Eritrea.

The Ethiopian government captured Mekelle in late November and immediately declared victory over the TPLF. But the rebels launched a guerrilla resistance and the war continued unabated.

The unofficial alliance of Ethiopian and Eritrean forces has been accused of a wide range of atrocities across Tigray, including massacres, sexual violence, massive looting of hospitals and clinics, assaults on refugee camps, and the destruction of farmland and farm equipment, triggering a famine.

Mr. Abiy, who won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for ending Ethiopia’s long conflict with Eritrea, has denied that there is any hunger in Tigray. But relief agencies have described horrific scenes in the region. As many as 900,000 people are in famine conditions, according to USAID, the U.S. government’s aid agency. UN officials have estimated that 350,000 people are suffering famine conditions.

Last week, as the fighting around Mekelle continued, a military air strike killed more than 60 people in a busy market in the town of Togoga, near Mekelle.

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