Ethiopian Rebel Leader Says His Forces Fired Rockets at Eritrea's Airport

Bombing of Eritrean capital Asmara by rebels marks a huge escalation as the deadly fighting in Ethiopias Tigray region spills across an international border

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Members of Amhara region militias en route to a mission to face the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), in Sanja, Amhara region near a border with Tigray, Ethiopia, November 9, 2020.
Members of Amhara region militias en route to a mission to face the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), in Sanja, Amhara region near a border with Tigray, Ethiopia, November 9, 2020.Credit: Tiksa Negeri / Reuters

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 neighboring Eritrea of sending tanks and thousands of troops into Tigray in support of an Ethiopian government offensive, Debretsion Gebremichael said his forces were under attack "on several fronts."

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"Our country is attacking us with a foreign country, Eritrea. Treason!," Debretsion said in text messages to Reuters, without providing further details or evidence of his claims.

With access restricted and most communications down in Tigray, Reuters could not independently verify assertions made by all sides about the conflict.

Government officials in Eritrea and the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa could not immediately be reached for comment.

Prime Minster Abiy Ahmed tweeted Sunday that Ethiopia was more than capable of achieving its objectives in Tigray "by itself", but did not specifically address Debretsion's claims.

A map locating the Tigray region. Credit: FDuckett,AP

Last week, Eritrean Foreign Minister Osman Saleh Mohammed denied his country had sent forces into Ethiopia, telling Reuters: "We are not part of the conflict."

Abiy launched the campaign in Tigray on November 4 after accusing local forces of attacking federal troops based in the northern state, which borders Eritrea and Sudan and is home to some 5 million people. The government accuses Tigray's leaders of treason and says its military operations are aimed at restoring the rule of law.

The conflict has killed hundreds on both sides, sent thousands fleeing into Sudan and threatens to destabilize other parts of Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa.

Ethiopians fleeing intense fighting in their homeland of Tigray, gather in a bordering Sudanese village, November 13, 2020Credit: EBRAHIM HAMID - AFP

Devastating war

Eritrea and Ethiopia fought a devastating 1998-2000 war. Abiy won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for making peace with Ethiopia's neighbor, but Eritrea's government remains hostile to the Tigray leadership after their role in that war.

Five regional diplomats told Reuters 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.

However, the U.S. Embassy in Asmara said in an alert to U.S. citizens on Sunday that there was no indication the airport had been hit.

Telephone lines to Eritrea went down following the reported rocket strikes on Saturday evening. Shortly before they lost communications, Asmara residents reported a power blackout and said some people were leaving the city out of fear, a diplomat told Reuters.

Debretsion told Reuters that Eritrea had deployed 16 divisions to Ethiopia but did not provide specific troop numbers. Eritrea has a vast standing army which the United States' CIA puts at 200,000 personnel.

Tigray's ruling party, the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), also accused Abiy of using drones from a military base in Eritrea belonging to the United Arab Emirates to attack the region.

"Abiy is now enlisting the support of UAE drones based in Assab in his devastating war against the people of Tigray," party spokesman Getachew Reda said in a tweet on Sunday. UAE officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Several Ethiopian refugees arriving in the Sudanese border town of Hamdayat told Reuters on Saturday that their areas had been shelled from Eritrea. Reuters could not independently verify this.

"We were shelled by artillery volleys from across the Eritrean border," said Naksiam Guru, a 22-year-old refugee who lives near the border. "I saw people dying in the streets."

At least 20,000 Ethiopians have crossed into Sudan, the United Nations refugee agency said on Sunday. UN and local aid agencies are trying to assist the refugees, who have been arriving with few possessions or provisions.

Fighting has also spilled into Ethiopia's Amhara state, which has sent troops into Tigray in support of Abiy. Late on Friday, rockets were fired at two airports in Amhara in what the TPLF said was retaliation for government air strikes against their region.

Abiy's government says the military has been carrying out air strikes in an attempt to destroy arms depots and other equipment controlled by insurgent Tigray forces, who experts say possess significant military hardware.

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