Rockets fired by Ethiopia’s Tigray dissidents hit the Eritrean capital

Rockets from Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region hit the capital of the Eritrean neighborhood on Saturday, diplomats said, the latest indication that Ethiopia’s internal conflict is spreading beyond its borders.

The leader of Ethiopia’s Tigray region confirmed on Sunday that his forces bombed the airport in Eritrea’s capital Asmara on Saturday night, confirming previous reports of a major escalation in a 12-day conflict in Ethiopia.

Tigray President Debretsion Gebremichael also said his forces had been battling Eritrean forces “on several fronts” in recent days. He did not specify where, but said Eritrean forces were deployed and fought along Ethiopia’s border.

The latest strikes in Eritrea came on the same day as the ruling party in Tigray, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), claimed rocket attacks on two airports in a separate region of Ethiopia.

The attack exacerbated fears that an Ethiopian prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, had promised it would be swift and instead included snowballing and destabilizing the wider region of Africa.

Abiy, last year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, announced on November 4 that he had ordered military operations in Tigray in a dramatic escalation of a long-running feud with the TPLF.

Hundreds of people are reported killed in the conflict in Africa’s second most populous country, some in a brutal massacre documented by Amnesty International.

Thousands have fled fighting and airstrikes in Tigray, over to neighboring Sudan.

The TPLF accuses Aby’s government of using military aid from Eritrea, which Ethiopia denies.

The rocket attacks in Eritrea took place on Saturday night, two diplomats in Addis Ababa told AFP.

“The reports we receive indicate that several of the rockets hit near the airport” in the Eritrean capital Asmara, a diplomat said.

Earlier Saturday, Getachew Reda, a leading TPLF member, threatened retaliatory “missile attacks” on Asmara and the Eritrean port city of Massawa.

It was not immediately clear how many rockets were fired, where in Tigray they were fired from, whether they hit their targets or what damage they caused.

Radio Erena, a diaspora station in Paris sympathetic to the Eritrean opposition, quoted Asmara residents as reporting “a total of four explosions”.

Tigray has been under communication interruption since the conflict began and calls to Asmara did not go through on Saturday.

There was no immediate response from Eritrea or the TPLF, who are bitter enemies.

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 Prize the following year largely for his attempt to initiate rapprochement with Eritrea.

Explosions, gunfire

On Friday night, rockets hit two airports in Ethiopia’s Amhara region, south of Tigray, an attack claimed by the TPLF on Saturday.

The federal government acknowledged that “airport areas have been damaged”, while a doctor said two soldiers were killed and up to 15 were injured.

“Last night, we caused major damage to the military parts of Gondar and Bahir Dar airports,” Getachew Reda, a senior member of the TPLF, said in a statement on Saturday, referring to the affected cities.

Military officials have promised to maintain the conflict in Tigray, and Abiy has repeatedly promised a quick, decisive victory.

But Amhara and Tigray are involved in long-running disputes over land along their common border as analysts worry about dragging Amhara into the conflict.

Thousands of Amhara militias have already marched on Tigray to fight alongside federal forces, according to local security officials.

Both Bahir Dar and Gondar were calm Saturday morning, residents said.

A Bahir Dar resident, who described the airport attacks, told AFP that there were “two powerful explosions around 22:50”.

“Then it fired for 15 minutes, and then it became quiet,” said the resident.

Humanitarian crisis

Abiy’s government has said the TPLF must be disarmed before negotiations can begin, frustrating world leaders who demand an immediate end to hostilities.

Abiy declared on Friday that the TPLF was in “death”, but the party has promised to fight.

Tigray’s communication suspension has made it difficult to assess competing allegations about the battles.

But there is little doubt that the region is facing a serious humanitarian crisis, say UN officials.

Gebremichael has said hundreds of thousands are displaced within the region, along with the thousands who have already reached Sudan.

UN humanitarian coordinator Catherine Sozi has warned of the suspension of communications and the roads have made it difficult to reach the most vulnerable.

The international body is lobbying the government for full humanitarian access.

Since Abiy took power, the TPLF has complained about being gone and the scapegoat for the country’s misery.

The feud grew more intense after Tigray went ahead with his own elections in September – despite a nationwide ban on all polls introduced due to the coronavirus pandemic – and tried to brand him an illegal ruler.

( Jowharwith AFP, REUTERS)