The Ethiopian army has captured three towns in the northern region of Tigray, one to the northwest and two to the south of the regional capital Mekelle, the government said on Tuesday as one senior official said the conflict was being "extinguished".
The Ethiopian military and allies including troops from neighboring Eritrea have been battling Tigray forces on and off for two years, a conflict that has killed thousands, displaced millions, and left hundreds of thousands on the brink of famine.
"The ENDF (Ethiopian National Defence Force) has taken control of the towns of Shire, Alamata, and Korem without fighting in urban areas," Ethiopia's government information service said in a statement.
A spokesman for the Tigray forces did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Earlier, the Tigray authorities had acknowledged losing control of Shire.
Located about 140 km (90 miles) northwest of Mekelle, Shire has an airport and is one of the region's biggest towns. It hosts tens of thousands of people who were displaced from other areas by the conflict.
Korem and Alamata are about 170 km and 180 km south of Mekelle along the main road leading to the neighboring region of Amhara.
A resident of Mekelle said people were rushing to stockpile basic goods as fears grew that federal and Eritrean forces might arrive. The resident, who asked not to be named because of safety fears, said prices had jumped by 10% and were expected to rise further if troops approached.
The Tigray conflict is rooted in long-running rivalries between regional power blocs over control of Ethiopia as a whole and in deep disagreements over how power should be balanced between federal and regional authorities.
Late last year, the Tigray forces advanced into Amhara as far as Debre Sina, a town just 190 km from the national capital Addis Ababa, before they were pushed back within Tigray's boundaries.
This week's gains by the government are the most significant battlefield shifts since that offensive and counter-offensive.
Redwan Hussien, National Security Adviser to Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, said the conflict was not spiraling - a thinly veiled rebuke of U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres who said on Monday it was spiraling out of control.
"It was spiraling when being expanded to other regions. Now, it's just being extinguished & degenerating," Redwan said, suggesting the government believed it was making decisive military gains.
The United Nations human rights office said it was concerned that some air strikes by government forces in Tigray had been indiscriminate.
In its statement, the government said the national army was taking "maximum care" to protect civilians.
The government will coordinate preparations with humanitarian groups to bring aid and restore services to areas now under its control, the statement added.
The United Nations, the European Union and several senior U.S. government officials have all called for an immediate ceasefire, for the launch of African Union-sponsored talks and for the withdrawal of Eritrean troops from Ethiopia.