MEKELLE, Ethiopia — In a major turn in Ethiopia’s eight-month civil war in the northern Tigray region, Tigrayan fighters began entering the regional capital Monday night after Ethiopian government troops retreated from the city.
The Ethiopian military has occupied the Tigray region since last November, after invading in cooperation with Eritrean and militia forces to wrest control from the regional government. The Tigrayan fighters, known as the Tigray Defense Forces, spent months regrouping and recruiting new fighters, and then in the past week began a rolling counterattack back toward the capital, Mekelle.
New York Times journalists in Mekelle saw thousands of residents take to the streets on Monday night, waving flags and shooting off fireworks after hearing that Tigrayan forces had advanced to the city.
The Tigrayans’ rapid advance was a significant setback for the government of Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, who had declared when he sent his forces into the restive Tigray region last year that the operation would be over in a matter of weeks.
Sisay Hagos, a 36-year-old who was celebrating in Mekelle on Monday, said, “They invaded us. Abiy is a liar and a dictator, but he is defeated already. Tigray will be an independent country!”
Refugees and international observers have accused the invading forces of wide-ranging atrocities, including ethnic cleansing, and of pushing the region to the brink of famine.
But from the outset, the party in control of Tigray’s regional government, known as the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, or T.P.L.F., which for many years was the ruling party in Ethiopia, has vowed to resist.
Soldiers belonging to the Ethiopian National Defense Forces were seen leaving Mekelle in vehicles throughout the day on Monday, some of them with looted materials, according to international and aid workers. Soldiers also entered the compound of Unicef and the World Food Program, and disconnected the internet, they said. Shops in the city closed early.
Politicians with the interim government that had been installed in Tigray by Ethiopia’s central government have also retreated from Mekelle, and some were already back in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, the international officials said.
The recent shifts in Mekelle followed more than a week of escalating violence and troop movements in the Tigray region. Heavy weapons were part of the fighting on both sides, and key towns reportedly changed hands among Ethiopian, Eritrean and Tigrayan forces, U.N. security documents show.
The Tigray Defense Forces have in recent weeks captured areas south of Mekelle that until recently were controlled by soldiers from the neighboring country of Eritrea, which had allied with the Ethiopian government. The rebels say they have captured several thousand Ethiopian soldiers and are holding them as prisoners of war.
Ethiopian forces reportedly abandoned a number of strategic positions around Adigrat, Abiy Adiy and in several locations in southern Tigray.
Getachew Reda, an executive member of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, said in a telephone interview last week that Tigrayan forces — which have mushroomed with thousands of new volunteers — have gone on the offensive, targeting four Ethiopian army divisions.
“We have launched an offensive at the divisions which we believed were critical,” Mr. Getachew said. “At the same time they have abandoned many towns and cities.”
Declan Walsh reported from Mekelle, Ethiopia, and Simon Marks from Brussels, Belgium.