Rockets fired by Ethiopia’s Tigray dissidents hit Eritrean capital

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The leader of Ethiopia's rebellious Tigray region confirmed on Sunday that his forces had fired rockets at the airport in Eritrea's capital, a major escalation that raises fears of a wider war in the Horn of Africa region.

Accusing neighbouring Eritrea of sending tanks and thousands of troops into Tigray in support of an Ethiopian government offensive, Debretsion Gebremichael, head of the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) said his forces were under attack "on several fronts."

"Ethiopian forces are also using the airport of Asmara," said Gebremichael, noting that 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.

The attacks exacerbated concerns that a conflict Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has vowed would be quick and contained could instead snowball and destabilise the broader Horn of Africa region.

Abiy, last year's Nobel Peace Prize winner, announced November 4 he had ordered military operations in Tigray in a dramatic escalation of a long-running feud with the 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, crossing to neighbouring Sudan.

US 'strongly condemns' TPLF attacks on Eritrea

The US State Department's top diplomat for Africa on Sunday denounced the TPLF attacks on neighbouring Eritrea.

"The United States strongly condemns the TPLF’s unjustifiable attacks against Eritrea on November 14 and its efforts to internationalize the conflict in Tigray," Tibor Nagy tweeted.

"We continue to urge immediate action to protect civilians, deescalate tensions, and restore peace," said Nagy, who is the US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs.

Communications blackout in Tigray

The rocket strikes in Eritrea took place Saturday evening, two Addis Ababa-based diplomats told AFP.

"The reports we're getting indicate that several of the rockets hit near the airport" in the Eritrean capital Asmara, one diplomat said.

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

Radio Erena, a Paris-based diaspora station sympathetic to the Eritrean opposition, cited Asmara residents who reported "four explosions in total".

Tigray has been under a communications blackout since the conflict began, and calls to Asmara were not going through Saturday.

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 in large part for his effort to initiate a rapprochement with Eritrea.

Attacks in neighbouring Amhara region

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

The federal government acknowledged that "the airport areas have sustained damages", while a doctor 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 TPLF, said in a statement Saturday, referring to the affected cities.

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

But Amhara and Tigray are embroiled in long-running disputes over land along their shared border that analysts worry could draw Amhara into the conflict.

Thousands of Amhara militiamen have already headed towards Tigray to fight alongside federal forces, according to local security officials.

Humanitarian crisis

Abiy's government has said the TPLF needs to be disarmed before negotiations can begin, frustrating world leaders who are calling for an immediate cessation of hostilities.

Abiy on Friday declared the TPLF was in the "throes of death", but the party has vowed to fight on.

Tigray's communications blackout has made it difficult to assess competing claims about the fighting.

But there is little doubt the region faces a grave humanitarian crisis, UN officials say.

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 the communications blackout and road closures have made it hard to reach the most vulnerable.

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

Since Abiy took power, the TPLF has complained of being sidelined and scapegoated for the country's woes.

The feud grew more intense after Tigray went ahead with its own elections in September – defying a nationwide ban on all polls imposed because of the coronavirus pandemic – and tried to brand him an illegitimate ruler.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, REUTERS)