Ethiopia's federal government on Monday declared a "unilateral ceasefire" in its Tigray region, State media reported, as fighters entered the regional capital, Mekelle, sparking celebrations on the streets.
The dramatic reversal for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's forces signalled a turning point in the nearly eight-month-old conflict in Tigray, that the UN says has pushed 350,000 people to the brink of famine.
The ceasefire announcement came as the fighters, who branded themselves the Tigray Defence Forces (TDF), marched into Mekelle, where residents danced as local officials fled the city.
"An unconditional, unilateral ceasefire has been declared starting from today, June 28," read a statement published Monday night by State media.
There was no immediate reaction from the TDF to the federal government's ceasefire declaration.
The development comes about eight months after federal forces took control of the city in a military operation to depose the former Tigray ruling party, which became the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
This latest victory is seen as one of the biggest blows to the Ethiopian National Army since the Tigray conflict erupted in November last year.
The Ethiopian government has accused TPLF of carrying out criminal activities.
Earlier Monday, multiple sources told Nation.Africa that Tigray forces took over the capital late in the afternoon. Witnesses said they saw federal forces pulling out of the capital as TDF fighters advanced.
Sources also said that thousands of residents of Mekelle took to the streets to celebrate the victory, waving flags of the Tigray Regional State and shooting fireworks.
Getachew Reda, spokesperson of the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), confirmed the development, saying: "The Ethiopia National Defense Forces (ENDF) is pulling out of Mekelle, the capital of Tigray.”
"The government of Tigray has ordered TDF to enter the capital as of this evening to restore calm and stop alleged looting. The war is taking a new turn point."
An interim government official told AFP: "TDF has taken control of the city. They have entered ... The city is celebrating. Everybody is outside dancing."
The official said Tigray's Abiy-appointed interim government had earlier opted to leave their posts in Mekelle as TDF fighters closed in "on every side".
"Everybody has left. The last ones left in the afternoon... The region doesn't have a government," said the official, who spoke to AFP on condition of anonymity for safety reasons.
A humanitarian official also confirmed the interim government's departure.
Abiy's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday evening.
State-affiliated Fana Broadcasting Corporate earlier reported that the head of Tigray's interim administration had asked the federal government to declare a ceasefire.
Banks raided, phones seized
Witnesses earlier reported that federal soldiers and police were fleeing Mekellee, with some raiding banks and commandeering vehicles belonging to private citizens.
"The federal police and Ethiopian forces are fleeing the city in cars they took from individuals. They seem to be going east," one witness said.
A UN official said that soldiers had dismantled the satellite communication equipment of multiple UN agencies in Mekele in an apparent attempt to curtail communications out of the city.
"This act violates UN privileges and immunities and the rules of international humanitarian law regarding respect for humanitarian relief objects. I condemn this action in the strongest terms," the executive director of the UN children's agency, Henrietta Fore, said on Twitter.
Multiple witnesses described celebratory gunfire in Mekelle on Monday night as residents took to the streets hailing the TDF's arrival.
"Everybody is out of their house. Everybody is excited and they have music on the streets," one Mekelle resident said.
"Everybody has their flags out and music is playing. Everybody, I don’t know how they got it, but everybody has fireworks."
The war in Tigray began last November, when Abiy sent troops in to oust the dissident regional leadership.
He said the move came in response to attacks by the regional ruling party, the TPLF, on federal army camps.
Abiy promised a swift victory, and federal troops took control of Mekelle in late November.
But intense fighting has persisted throughout the region amid mounting reports of massacres and widespread sexual violence.
The TDF launched a major offensive last week coinciding with Ethiopia's highly anticipated national elections.
Ethiopia air strikes
Last Tuesday, Ethiopian forces carried out airstrikes on the town of Togogo, some 25 km away from the region's capital, Mekelle.
Eyewitnesses and hospital sources then told Nation.Africa that more than 50 civilians were killed.
The attacks came about a day after the TDF reported major victories against the allied Ethiopian and Eritrean forces.
However, Colonel Getnet, Ethiopia’s army spokesperson, dismissed reports that Tigray forces had taken control of key areas including Adigrat, a strategic town some 45 kms away from the Eritrean border.
"The TPLF is engaged in a campaign of false information," he said.
According to the eyewitnesses, the Ethiopian army blocked ambulances of non-governmental organisations including Red Cross from reaching victims, sparking anger in Tigray and leading to global condemnation.
The Ethiopian National Defense Force, helped by Eritrean troops, has been battling forces loyal to TPLF since November. The eight-month conflict has claimed thousands of lives and displace over two million people.