Ethiopian PM announces airstrikes in country’s Tigray region

NAIROBI, KENYA (AP) – Ethiopia’s Prime Minister on Friday said his government has carried out airstrikes against the forces of the country’s well-armed Tigray region, asserting that strikes in multiple locations “completely destroyed rockets and other heavy weapons” and made a retaliatory attack impossible.

Abiy Ahmed’s evening announcement marked another escalation in clashes this week that experts said could slide one of Africa’s most powerful and populous countries into civil war. The conflict pits former allies in the nation’s ruling coalition, with the federal government and regional government now regarding each other as illegal.

There was no mention of casualties in what Abiy called the “first round of operation” against the region’s government, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). He said the air force destroyed heavy weapons in Tigray’s capital, Mekele, and surrounding areas, alleging the TPLF “has the desire to use them”.

The operation will continue, Abiy said, “until the junta is made accountable by law”. And he warned the Tigray population: “In order to avoid unexpected peril, I advise that you limit group movements in cities.”

There was no immediate response from the Tigray government, while the region is increasingly boxed in by movement restrictions and a six-month state of emergency imposed by the federal government.

Passengers queue to get on a bus in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. PHOTO: AP

The military operation launched early Wednesday after Abiy accused the Tigray government of a deadly attack on a military base. He asserted on Friday that months of trying to resolve differences with the regional government have failed. Now, he said, the operation has “clear, limited and achievable objectives: to restore the rule of law and the constitutional order”.

And with that, the prime minister appeared to close the door on dialogue, which some experts and diplomats said is desperately needed.

The prime minister, who won the Nobel Peace Prize last year for his sweeping political reforms, now faces his greatest test. The TPLF, which dominated Ethiopia’s government before he took office in 2018, has felt marginalised by the shifts in power and defied the federal government in September by holding a controversial local election.

The northern Tigray region is now increasingly cut off. Ethiopia’s civil aviation authority said airports in Mekele and the regional cities of Shire, Axum and Humera were closed. In Sudan, the acting governor of Kassla province said its border with northern Ethiopia has closed “until further notice” due to the tensions, the Sudan News Agency reported.

Experts said civil war would be catastrophic and destabilising for the Horn of Africa. The United Nations (UN) said Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has spoken with the chair of the African Union, which is based in Ethiopia, and Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok in his role as current head of the regional bloc.

Aid groups warn a humanitarian disaster is in the making if fighting continues, with the COVID-19 pandemic one of several crises.

Communications remained almost completely cut off in Tigray. They disappeared around the time that Abiy made his early Wednesday announcement.