Tigray forces fired rockets into a neighbouring Ethiopian state on Friday, heightening fears the internal conflict could spread to other parts of the country, a day after the federal government said its forces were closing in on the dissident region’s capital.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, last year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, unleashed a military campaign in the Tigray region on November 4 with the declared aim of unseating its ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which he accuses of defying his government and seeking to destabilise it.
Hundreds of people are reported to have been killed in the conflict in Africa’s second most populous country, while tens of thousands have fled fighting and air strikes in Tigray, crossing to neighbouring Sudan.
Earlier this week Abiy said the military operation was in its final phase.
Redwan Hussein, spokesman for an Ethiopian committee handling the conflict, said that “our defence forces are moving forward and closing in on Mekele,” Tigray’s regional capital.
On Friday, the government claimed to have captured a string of towns in Tigray. A communications blackout in the region has made such claims difficult to verify.
– Rocket fire –
An official in Ethiopia’s Amhara state said TPLF forces fired rockets at its regional capital Bahir Dar early Friday morning.
Last week, the TPLF also fired rockets at Asmara, the capital of neighbouring Eritrea, which it accuses of backing the Ethiopian advance. Both Eritrea and Ethiopia deny the allegation.
Amhara communications official Gizachew Muluneh said the three TPLF rockets all missed their target, resulting in neither casualties nor damage, with two rockets striking near the airport and a third hitting a maize field.
For its part, the TPLF on Friday accused government forces of an attack on Mekele’s university that injured an unspecified number of students.
Tigray president Debretsion Gebremichael told AFP the rocket strike aimed at Bahir Dar airport was in retaliation for that attack.
There was no immediate response from the government in Addis Ababa, which has insisted all its air strikes are aimed at military targets.
– From feuding to fighting –
The TPLF led the overthrow of Mengistu Hailemariam, head of Ethiopia’s military Derg regime, in 1991 and dominated the country’s politics until Abiy became prime minister in 2018.
The party has complained of being sidelined and blamed for the country’s woes. The bitter feud with the central government led the TPLF to hold their own elections this year in defiance of a postponement due to the coronavirus pandemic.
International calls for peace have escalated along with the fighting, and the African Union on Friday named three former national presidents as mediators in the conflict.
Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia and Kgalema Motlanthe of South Africa would “engage all sides to the conflict with a view to ending hostilities”, said a statement from the office of South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, who currently holds the AU’s rotating leadership.
US officials said they had urged de-escalation from both Abiy and the TPLF leadership, but saw little prospect for negotiations.
“Neither party, from everything we hear, is interested in mediation,” said Tibor Nagy, the top US diplomat for Africa.
Meanwhile UN chief Antonio Guterres warned of a “dramatic humanitarian impact” from the fighting, requesting “the opening of humanitarian corridors and the truces that might be necessary for humanitarian aid to be delivered” — without specifying where such corridors could be located.
Abiy has insisted the military operation’s narrow target is the “reactionary and rogue” members of the TPLF, not ordinary Tigrayan civilians.
But observers have voiced concern about Tigrayans losing their jobs or being arrested for their ethnicity.
– Casualties and refugees –
The conflict started when Abiy accused TPLF forces of attacking two federal military camps in the region.
Since then, his campaign has seen warplanes bombing Tigray and heavy fighting, while Amnesty International has documented a gruesome massacre in which “scores, and likely hundreds, of people were stabbed or hacked to death” in the southwest town of Mai-Kadra.
Meanwhile the UN says a “full-scale humanitarian crisis” is unfolding, with 36,000 people having streamed into neighbouring Sudan.
UN officials in Geneva said that around $200 million will be needed to provide assistance to as many as 200,000 people who could flee unrest over the next six months.
The UN’s children’s agency UNICEF said there were already 12,000 children among the refugees.
“Restricted access and the ongoing communication blackout have left an estimated 2.3 million children in need of humanitarian assistance and out of reach” in Tigray, executive director Henrietta Fore said.
The Norwegian Refugee Council, which is operating in eastern Sudan, warned up to 5,000 people were crossing from Ethiopia every day.
“People are sleeping out in the open. There are no tents, just blankets,” country director Will Carter said.
“They are essentially moving with nothing, to nothing.”