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Tigray Forces Fire Rockets Into Ethiopian Region Heightening Fears Conflict Could Spread

Ethiopian refugees who fled fighting in Tigray province are pictured at the Um Rakuba camp in Sudan's eastern Gedaref province, Nov. 19, 2020.
Ethiopian refugees who fled fighting in Tigray province are pictured at the Um Rakuba camp in Sudan's eastern Gedaref province, Nov. 19, 2020.

Tigray forces fired rockets Friday into a neighboring Ethiopian state, 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 destabilize 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 airstrikes in Tigray, crossing to neighboring 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 defense 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 neighboring 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 targets, 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 airstrikes are aimed at military targets.

Ethiopian refugees who fled fighting in Tigray province are pictured at the Um Rakuba camp in Sudan's eastern Gedaref province, Nov. 19, 2020.

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 its own elections this year in defiance of a postponement due to the coronavirus pandemic.

International calls for peace have escalated along with the fighting.

U.S. officials said they had urged de-escalation from both Abiy and the TPLF leadership but saw little prospect for negotiations.

"At this point neither party, from everything we hear, is interested in mediation," said Tibor Nagy, the top U.S. diplomat for Africa.

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.

Ethiopia's army head, Berhanu Jula, has accused World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, a Tigrayan who served as health minister under TPLF leader Meles Zenawi, of working on behalf of the party.

"He has worked for them to get weapons," said Berhanu on Thursday, without offering evidence.

Tedros denied the accusation, tweeting: "I am on only one side and that is the side of peace."

Ethiopian refugees who fled fighting in Tigray province lie in a hut at the Um Rakuba camp in Sudan's eastern Gedaref province, Nov. 18, 2020.

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.

Air Force chief Yilma Merdasa told state-affiliated Fana Broadcasting Corp. that they were also deploying drones but denied Tigray's claims they were coming from abroad.

Meanwhile, the U.N. said a "full-scale humanitarian crisis" was unfolding, with 36,000 people having streamed into neighboring Sudan.

U.N. officials in Geneva said that around $200 million would be needed to provide assistance to as many as 200,000 people who could flee unrest over the next six months.

The U.N.'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."