ADDIS ABABA: The leader of the Tigray region of Ethiopia yesterday claimed responsibility for rocket strikes on the airport in neighboring Eritrea’s capital, a move that ratcheted up fears of a wider conflict in the Horn of Africa region. Diplomats told AFP Saturday night that multiple rockets had struck the capital, Asmara, landing near the airport, though communications restrictions in Tigray and Eritrea made the reports difficult to verify.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced Nov 4 he had ordered military operations in Tigray in a dramatic escalation of a long-running feud with the region’s ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). “Ethiopian forces are also using the airport of Asmara,” TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael told AFP yesterday, saying this made the airport a “legitimate target” for the strikes. He added that his forces had also been fighting “16 divisions” of Eritrean forces in recent days “in several fronts”.
The TPLF has previously accused Abiy’s government of enlisting military support from Eritrea, something Ethiopia denies. There was no immediate response from the Eritrean or Ethiopian governments yesterday. It was not clear how many rockets were fired on Saturday night, where in Tigray they were fired from, whether they hit their targets or what damage they inflicted. The United States embassy in Asmara posted an advisory to its website yesterday about “a series of loud noises” at around 7:50 pm Saturday night.
“Unconfirmed reports indicate they may have been explosive devices believed to be in the vicinity of the Asmara International Airport. There are no indications the airport was struck,” the advisory said. The TPLF dominated Ethiopian politics for nearly three decades and fought a brutal 1998-2000 border war with Eritrea that left tens of thousands dead. Abiy came to power in 2018 and won the Nobel Peace Prize the following year in large part for his effort to initiate a rapprochement with Eritrea.
Meanwhile, gunmen killed at least 34 people in a “gruesome” attack on a passenger bus in west Ethiopia, a part of the country that has recently seen a spate of deadly assaults on civilians, the national human rights body said yesterday. The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) said in a statement that “the estimated number of casualties, currently at 34, is likely to rise” from the attack which occurred Saturday night in the Benishangul-Gumuz region.
A spokesman for the commission, an independent government body, confirmed that the casualties were all deaths. The EHRC statement said the bus attack occurred in the Debate administrative area, and that “there are reports of similar attacks” in three other areas, as well as “of persons who have fled to seek shelter”.
Hundreds of people are reported to have been killed so far in the conflict in Africa’s second most populous country, some in a gruesome massacre documented last week by Amnesty International. Nearly 25,000 Ethiopians have fled as refugees into Sudan, a figure that continues to rise, Sudanese officials say. Among them are Ethiopians returning to camps where they and their families sought refuge from devastating famine decades ago.
To cross the river at the two countries’ border, they climb into small boats crammed with other exhausted and terrified Ethiopians seeking safety. “I am filled with immeasurable sadness, because when I left, 20 years ago, I never thought that I would come back as a miserable refugee,” said Gabriel, a 40-year-old farmer who arrived in eastern Sudan this week, asking to be identified by his first name because he feared for his safety. Back in Ethiopia, the UN is pushing for full humanitarian access to Tigray, where Debretsion says hundreds of thousands have been displaced internally by fighting that has featured multiple rounds of government air strikes.
Ever since Abiy took power in 2018 on the back of anti-government protests, the TPLF has complained of being sidelined and scapegoated for Ethiopia’s woes. The feud grew more intense after Tigray went ahead with its own elections in September – defying a nationwide ban on all polls imposed because of the coronavirus pandemic – and tried to brand him an illegitimate ruler. The immediate catalyst for the military operations in Tigray, Abiy has said, was a TPLF attack on federal military camps.
The TPLF has denied the attack ever occurred, though Abiy’s office has seized on a recent interview with Tigrayan media in which a senior TPLF official, Sekuture Getachew, said “it was imperative to take a thunder-like strike”. “Had it not been for the mission maybe Abiy had a chance to command dictatorially for a short term,” Sekuture said in the interview, adding that the TPLF now controlled most of the firepower of the Ethiopian military’s Northern Command. Other TPLF leaders have not commented on the interview.
Ethiopian lawmakers have backed a plan to install a caretaker administration in Tigray, and officials have issued arrest warrants for Debretsion and other TPLF leaders. Abiy’s government has said the TPLF needs to be disarmed before negotiations can begin, frustrating world leaders who are calling for an immediate cessation of hostilities. Meanwhile there continue to be fears the conflict could draw in other regions of Ethiopia. On Saturday the TPLF claimed responsibility for rocket attacks on two airports in Amhara region, which borders Tigray to the south.