Ethiopian migrants, who fled intense fighting in their homeland of Tigray, wait for their ration of food in the border reception centre of Hamdiyet in the eastern Sudanese state of Kasala.—AFP
Ethiopian migrants, who fled intense fighting in their homeland of Tigray, wait for their ration of food in the border reception centre of Hamdiyet in the eastern Sudanese state of Kasala.—AFP

ADDIS ABABA: The leader of the Tigray region of Ethiopia on Sunday claimed responsibility for rocket strikes targeting the airport in neighbouring Eritrea’s capital, a move that ratcheted up fears of a wider conflict in the Horn of Africa region.

Diplomats said 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 on 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 said on Sunday, 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.

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 on Sunday about “a series of loud noises” at around 7:50pm on 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 is likely seeking an “internationalisation of the war” in order to draw outside intervention and stir up nationalist sentiment it believes would work in its favour, said Roland Marchal, an expert on the Horn of Africa at France’s Sciences Po.

Implicating historic foe Eritrea could also “justify in advance the cost of the war for the civilian population” in Tigray, Marchal said.

In a statement on Sunday, Abiy said military operations were “progressing well” and Ethiopia would “prevail” without outside help.

“Ethiopia is more than capable of attaining the objectives of the operation by itself,” Abiy said. Abiy announced last week that federal forces had taken control of western Tigray, and on Sunday state media reported they had seized Alamata, a town in southern Tigray. The claim could not be corroborated because of the communications blackout in Tigray.

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.

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. Over 25,000 Ethiopians have fled as refugees into Sudan, a figure that continues to rise, Sudanese officials say.

Gunmen kill 34 in bus attack

Gunmen in western Ethiopia killed at least 34 people in an attack on a bus on Saturday night, the national human rights body said on Sunday, as fears grow of a security vacuum in the country amid a military campaign in the north.

The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission said the number of people killed was likely to rise after what it called a “gruesome” attack on the passenger bus in the Benishangul-Gumuz region.

It said there were reports of “similar” attacks, and of people fleeing the violence, in other parts of the region.

The latest attack is a grim addition to the human cost which we bear collectively,” Daniel Bekele, commission head, said in a statement.

He urged regional and federal authorities to work together on a strategy for Benishangul-Gumuz due to the “unrelenting pace” of attacks there. Armed militia men killed at least 45 people in the same region in September, according to the Ethiopian government.

Published in Dawn, November 16th, 2020