Ethiopia’s military has warned civilians in Tigray that there will be “no mercy” if they do not “save themselves” before a final offensive to flush out regional leaders.

Human Rights Watch said on Sunday that the threat could violate international law.

“From now on, the fighting will be a tank battle,” spokesman Colonel Dejene Tsegaye said late on Saturday.

Sudan Ethiopia
Tigray refugees who fled the conflict in the Ethiopia’s Tigray arrive on the banks of the Tekeze River on the Sudan-Ethiopia border (Nariman El-Mofty/AP)

He said the army is marching on the Tigray capital, Mekele, and will encircle it with tanks.

“Our people in Mekele should be notified that they should protect themselves from heavy artillery,” he said.

Mr Tsegaye accused the Tigray leaders of hiding among the population and warned civilians to “steer away” from them.

But “treating a whole city as a military target would not only unlawful, it could also be considered a form of collective punishment”, Human Rights Watch researcher Laetitia Bader tweeted on Sunday.

“In other words, war crimes,” former US national security adviser Susan Rice tweeted.

Ethiopia’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, in a new statement, has given the leaders of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) 72 hours to surrender, saying “you are at a point of no return”.

He accused the TPLF leaders of using religious sites, hotels, schools “and even cemeteries” as hideouts, and using Mekele residents as human shields.

For days, the government has asserted it is marching to Mekele in a final push to end the deadly conflict that erupted on November 4 with the heavily armed Tigray regional government.