Rebellious forces from Ethiopia’s Tigray region fired rockets at the airport in Eritrea’s capital Asmara on Saturday evening, their leader said on Sunday, confirming earlier reports of a major escalation in a 12-day old conflict in Ethiopia.
“Fighting is still continuing on several fronts” in Ethiopia, Debretsion Gebremichael told Reuters in a text message.
Five regional diplomats told Reuters shortly after the attack that at least three rockets were fired at Eritrea’s capital from Ethiopia on Saturday night. At least two of the rockets hit Asmara airport, three of the diplomats said.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed launched a military offensive in the restive Tigray northern region on November 4, after accusing Tigrayan forces of attacking federal troops based in the northern region, which borders Eritrea and Sudan.
His government says the Ethiopian military has been carrying out airstrikes in an attempt to destroy equipment including arms depots controlled by the insurgents.
“Our campaign in the Tigray Region to uphold rule of law is progressing well,” Abiy said in a tweet on Sunday. “Those who are committing crimes against humanity and peace will be held accountable.”
“Thanks to the exception valor and commitment its [sic] sons and daughters, Ethiopia is more than capable of attaining the objectives of the operation by itself,” he added.
The Tigrayan leader Debretsion, communicating by text message, also said that his forces have been fighting “16 divisions” of the Eritrean army “on several fronts” for the past few days. He did not give an estimate for how many troops he believes Eritrea has deployed. Eritrea has a vast standing army which the United States’ CIA puts at 200,000 personnel.
He said Eritrean forces have crossed into Ethiopia at Badme, Rama, and Zalambessa, three border towns in the restive northern region.
“Our country is attacking us with a foreign country, Eritrea. Treason!” he told Reuters in a text message.
There was no immediate comment from the Ethiopian government on Debretsion’s claim of the strikes on Eritrea or other comments.
Eritrea’s government has denied involvement in the conflict. Officials in Asmara were not immediately reachable after the strikes.
Debretsion said on Tuesday that Eritrea had sent troops over the border in support of Abiy’s government, but provided no evidence. Eritrean Foreign Minister Osman Saleh Mohammed denied this at the time, telling Reuters: “We are not part of the conflict.”
At about 7.50 p.m. local time on Saturday, a series of loud noises were heard in Asmara, said the United States’ embassy in Eritrea.
“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,” said the embassy in a statement on Sunday. “All U.S. Citizens in Asmara are advised to exercise caution, remain in their homes, and conduct only essential travel until further notice.”
Since the violence began on November 4, more than 14,500 refugees have fled Ethiopia into Sudan, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR). Services for 96,000 Eritrean refugees inside Tigray have been disrupted and there are reports of growing numbers of Ethiopians becoming displaced internally, the UN added.
“General living and operating conditions inside Tigray are becoming more difficult with power outages and food and fuel supplies becoming extremely scarce,” said the agency’s global spokesperson, Babar Baloch, at a press briefing at the Palais des Nations in Geneva on Friday. “Communications have been cut off creating an information blackout.”
The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission said in a statement on Saturday that it was closely monitoring the risk of human rights violations arising from the ongoing war.
Mass killing of civilians in Ethiopia’s Tigray region
A large number of civilians have been brutally killed in Ethiopia’s Tigray region amid fighting between the local and federal governments, said Amnesty International on Thursday.
The reported killings occurred in Mai-Kadra, a town in the region’s south-west, on the night of November 9, according to the international NGO. CNN has not independently confirmed the deaths. Photographs and videos digitally verified and geolocated by Amnesty International showed bodies strewn across the town or being carried away on stretchers.
“We have confirmed the massacre of a very large number of civilians, who appear to have been day laborers in no way involved in the ongoing military offensive,” said Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Director for East and Southern Africa.
“This is a horrific tragedy whose true extent only time will tell as communication in Tigray remains shut down.”
Ethiopia’s federal government declared “war” with the region’s ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), earlier this month. Ethiopian Prime Minister and Nobel laureate Abiy Ahmed have ordered the Ethiopian Defense Forces to lead a “law enforcement operation” in the area, which includes airstrikes.
Witnesses in Mai-Kadra, who were providing food and other supplies to the EDF, told Amnesty International they saw dead bodies, as well as injured survivors. The victims’ wounds appeared to be inflicted by sharp weapons, they told the human rights organization, which commissioned an independent pathologist to confirm the reports.
“Those wounded told me they were attacked with machetes, axes, and knives. You can also tell from the wounds that those who died were attacked by sharp objects,” one unnamed witness told Amnesty International.