ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) -Rebellious Tigrayan forces said on Saturday they had seized the strategic town of Dessie in Ethiopia's Amhara region where tens of thousands of ethnic Amharas have sought refuge from an escalation in fighting, but the government denied this.
The fighters pushed Ethiopian government forces from Dessie and were headed towards the town of Kombolcha, Getachew Reda, spokesperson for the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), told Reuters by satellite phone from an undisclosed location.
He said Tigrayan forces had captured numerous Ethiopian soldiers.
Legesse Tulu, the government spokesperson, told Reuters in a text message that the town was still under the control of the Ethiopian government and said claims by the Tigrayan forces were "fabricated propaganda".
The Unites States on Saturday afternoon called on Tigrayan forces to halt their advances "in and around the cities of Dessie and Kombolcha" and renewed calls for them to withdraw from the Amhara and Afar regions.
Asked about the Tigrayan forces' claims, Ethiopian military spokesman Colonel Getnet Adane referred Reuters to the federal government. Amhara spokesperson Gizachew Muluneh, the mayor of Dessie and a spokesperson for the town did not respond to requests for comment.
Reuters could not independently verify the account of either side as phone lines in Dessie appeared to be down as of Saturday afternoon.
The capture of Dessie would be a strategic gain for the Tigrayan fighters against the central government forces who are trying to dislodge them from the Amhara region.
The large town is some 385 km (240 miles) from the capital, Addis Ababa, and is the furthest south in Amhara that the TPLF has reached since pushing into the region in July.
A school director in Dessie said he saw Ethiopian soldiers retreating from the town on Saturday morning towards Kombolcha and that power across town had been off since Friday.
Another resident of Dessie also said the town had no power and that the federal army had left. Both said they had heard Tigrayan fighters were in town but had not seen them. Both residents spoke on condition of anonymity.
War broke nearly a year ago between federal troops and the TPLF. Thousands of people have been killed and more than 2 million people have been forced to flee.
Tigrayan forces were initially beaten back, but recaptured most of the region in July and pushed into the neighbouring Amhara and Afar regions.
In mid-October, the Tigrayan forces said the military had launched a ground offensive to push them out of Amhara. The military said on Thursday there was heavy fighting there, but accused the Tigrayan forces of starting it.
(Reporting by Addis Ababa newsroom Editing by Mark Heinrich, Frances Kerry and Toby Chopra)