War in Ethiopia’s Tigray region crosses northern border into Eritrea; 25,000 refugees flee to Sudan

Accusing Eritrea of participating in a “full-scale war” alongside the Ethiopian federal troops against the Tigray regional government, the latter fired rockets targeting the airport in Eritrea’s capital city on Saturday 

November 16, 2020 by Peoples Dispatch
Ethiopia Tigray conflict
(Photo: DW/M. Hailesilassie)

The war in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region is getting increasingly internationalized as the Tigrayan forces, rebelling against the federal government, fired across the northern border into Eritrea on November 14, Saturday. 

As of Saturday, around 25,000 refugees had fled across the western border into Sudan, according to its state media. Sudanese officials fear this number may go up to 200,000. 

In a separate attack in Benishangul-Gumuz, a western regional State along the border with Sudan, unidentified gunmen killed 34 civilians in a passenger bus on Saturday night. The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has called it a “gruesome” attack. 

The Benishangul-Gumuz region does not share a border with Tigray but is located to the southwest of its southern neighbor Amhara, whose regional government’s militias are supporting the federal troops in Tigray. However, so far, there are no links drawn between this attack and the armed conflict between the federal government and the regional government of Tigray.

This conflict began on November 4, after Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed ordered the federal armed forces into Tigray to dislodge the ruling Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) from the regional government. Abiy accused the regional troops of attacking the Northern Command of the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) in the city of Mekelle.

The TPLF had initially denied this accusation, claiming instead that the soldiers of the Northern Command had defected to their side. However, on November 14, Sekuture Getachew, a senior TPLF member, admitted on Dimsti Weyane TV that the TPLF had carried out a “preemptive strike” on this command.

The TPLF was the dominant political force in Ethiopia from the 1990s until 2018, when Abiy became the PM. He came to power as a reformer in the backdrop of the popular anti-government protests demanding greater civil and political rights. 

The tension that has since been brewing between the TPLF and the Abiy-led federal government escalated in March, when the latter postponed the elections originally scheduled for August in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Deeming this postponement as unconstitutional, the Tigray regional government held elections, in which the TPLF was re-elected with a majority. The federal and the regional governments have since declared each other as illegitimate. 

Dismissing calls from the United Nations and the African Union for de-escalation, the PM has reiterated that the military offensive will continue until the TPLF is removed from power and disarmed. 

However, having been on the frontline of the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea between 1998-2000, the TPLF-ruled regional government of Tigray is the most heavily armed of all the various autonomous regions in Ethiopia. With an estimated 250,000 soldiers, the Tigrayan troops, loyal to the TPLF, amount to over half of Ethiopia’s armed forces.

The TPLF has been accusing Eritrea of supporting the federal troops in the conflict with the regional government. PM Abiy had negotiated a peace deal with Eritrea against the TPLF’s wishes soon after coming to power in 2018.

While Eritrea has denied the allegation of sending its troops into Ethiopia, the federal troops fighting in Tigray have used the Eritrean territory to retreat and regroup before relaunching attacks. BBC reported that the Ethiopian troops injured in the fighting are being treated in Eritrean hospitals. 

After warning of a retaliation, the Tigrayan forces admitted to launching rockets into Eritrea on Saturday night. AP reported at least three rocket attacks, seemingly targeting the international airport in Eritrea’s capital city, Asmara, although there are no reports indicating that the airport was struck.  

Citing an unnamed source, the Guardian reported that one of the rockets landed close to Eritrea’s information ministry building in Asmara. The capital has seen widespread power cuts since the attack. Warning of more attacks, the TPLF has alleged that 16 divisions of Eritrea’s military are fighting alongside the Ethiopian federal troops to defeat the Tigrayan forces.   

Tigray regional government president Debretsion Gebremichael, when asked by an AP reporter about targeting Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, said, “I don’t want to tell you, but the missiles are long-range as well.”

PM Abiy also continues to reiterate his resolve to see the conflict to an end. In a statement on November 15, his office said, “With an unwavering commitment, we will see this operation to its end.” 

In a seeming response to the TPLF’s call for international intervention and the UN’s offer to mediate a peaceful resolution, the statement adds, “As a sovereign nation, Ethiopia reaffirms its capability and resolve to manage and handle its own rule of law operation without any external intervention.”