Leaders of Ethiopia’s northern Tigray on Saturday claimed rocket attacks on two airports in a nearby region and threatened to strike neighbouring Eritrea, raising tensions that the escalating conflict could spread across national borders.
The attacks — and threats of more — fueled concern that a conflict Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed vowed would be quick and contained could instead snowball and destabilise the broader Horn of Africa region.
Abiy, the winner of last year’s Nobel Peace Prize, announced last week he had ordered military operations in Tigray, saying the move came in response to attacks on federal military camps by the regional ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
Hundreds of people are reported to have been killed in the conflict in Africa’s second most populous country, some in a gruesome massacre documented by Amnesty International.
Thousands have fled fighting and air strikes in Tigray, whose leaders Abiy accuses of seeking to destabilise the country.
As of Friday evening, at least 21,000 Ethiopians had fled across the border into Sudan, according to Sudan’s refugee agency.
The strikes on airports took place Friday night in two cities of Tigray’s neighbouring Amhara region, Bahir Dar and Gondar.
The federal government acknowledged that “the airport areas have sustained damages”, while a doctor in Gondar said two soldiers were killed and up to 15 injured.
“Yesterday evening we’ve inflicted heavy damages on the military components of the Gondar and Bahir Dar airports,” Getachew Reda, a senior member of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), said in a statement Saturday.
He reiterated claims by the TPLF that Eritrean soldiers are involved in the fighting, which Ethiopia denies.
Getachew said the TPLF would not hesitate to strike locations inside Eritrea — Ethiopia’s traditional foe — including its capital, Asmara.
“Whether they lift from Asmara or Bahir Dar to attack Tigray… we will commit retaliatory measures. We will undertake missile attacks on selected targets in addition to the airports,” Getachew said.
“We will conduct missile attacks to foil military movements in Massawa and Asmara”, he added.
Ethiopia and Eritrea fought a brutal border war from 1998-2000 that left tens of thousands dead.
Abiy won his Nobel in large part for taking steps to end the nearly two-decade stalemate that followed.