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Ethiopia’s PM says airstrikes launched against targets in restive Tigray region

Ethiopia’s air force has carried out strikes in the restive Tigray region, the country’s prime minister has said, in another escalation of a crisis that observers fear could plunge the country into a bitter and bloody civil conflict.

The prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, said the strikes in multiple locations “completely destroyed rockets and other heavy weapons” belonging to the well-armed regional government and made it impossible for a retaliatory attack.

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. He said the air force destroyed heavy weapons in Tigray’s capital, Mekele, and surrounding areas.

The operation in the northernmost of the nine regions of Ethiopia will continue “until the junta is made accountable by law”, Abiy said. He asserted that the “large-scale law enforcement operation” has “clear, limited and achievable objectives: to restore the rule of law and the constitutional order”.

The TPLF dominated Ethiopia’s government before Abiy took office in 2018, but its power has since waned. Abiy’s government launched military operations in Tigray on Wednesday, after he accused the TPLF of attacking a military camp in the region and attempting to loot military assets. The TPLF denies the attack and has accused Abiy of concocting the story to justify deploying the military.

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

Earlier in the day Abiy had threatened Tigray’s leaders, warning that there was “no place for criminal elements” in Ethiopia. “The proud Ethiopian people of Tigray [and] other citizens cannot be taken hostage by fugitives from justice forever. We shall extract these criminal elements [from Tigray and] relaunch our country on a path to sustainable prosperity for all,” last year’s Nobel peace prize winner said in a statement on social media.

Timeline

Key events leading to Ethiopia’s Tigray crisis

Revolution

The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) topples Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, the head of a communist junta that ruled the country from 1974. The coalition group is led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), guerrilla fighters who marched from their homeland in Ethiopia’s north to the capital, Addis Ababa.

Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia proclaimed

The EPRDF sweeps to power in poorly contested elections, and the TPLF leader, Meles Zenawi, becomes Ethiopia’s prime minister. Tigrayans dominate senior ranks of government.


Ethnic federalism

Meles introduces a system that gives the country’s main ethnic groups the chance to govern the areas in which they dominate. Though Tigrayans make up about 5% of the population, they benefit disproportionately, other regions complain, as roads and other infrastructure are built in their sparsely populated area.

Meles dies

The prime minister dies in office and a successor from another ethnic group is appointed.


ERPDF divided

Divisions break out in the EPRDF over how quickly to pursue political reforms in response to street protests that threaten the coalition’s grip.

Abiy Ahmed comes to power

Abiy Ahmed, an Oromo, takes over as prime minister, winning praise at home and abroad for opening up one of Africa’s most restrictive political and economic systems.

Crackdowns

Tigrayans complain they are being persecuted in a crackdown on corruption and past abuses. Former senior military and political officials are put on trial.

Peace prize

Abiy is awarded the Nobel peace prize for his peacemaking efforts, which ended two decades of hostility with Eritrea. The TPLF continue to view Eritrea as an enemy.

Ethiopia’s ruling coalition agrees to form a single party, but the TPLF refuses to merge with three other ethnic-based parties, calling the move rushed and undemocratic.

Election row

Tigray holds regional elections in defiance of the federal government, which postponed nationwide polls due in August because of Covid-19. Abiy’s government says the vote is illegal.

Funds withheld

The federal government starts to withhold some funds meant for social welfare programmes in Tigray, part of a plan to starve the regional authorities of cash in retaliation for the vote.

Fighting breaks out

Abiy sends troops into Tigray, accusing the TPLF of attacking federal troops based in the region. The TPLF accuses Abiy of punishing the region for the September vote. Reuters

“What has been initiated against us is clearly a war, an invasion … This is a war we’re conducting to preserve our existence,” Debretsion Gebremichael, chair of the TPLF and president of the Tigray region, said at a press conference.





Debretsion Gebremichael, Tigray’s president, has described the Ethiopian government’s actions as an invasion.



Debretsion Gebremichael, Tigray’s president, has described the Ethiopian government’s actions as an invasion. Photograph: Tiksa Negeri/Reuters

Debretsion said fighting persisted in western Tigray and that federal troops were gathering on the border in the neighbouring Amhara and Afar regions.

Diplomats in Addis Ababa said there have been casualties on both sides, but with internet and phone connections in Tigray cut there was no confirmation or details of the reports.

The fighting in Tigray has drawn expressions of concern from the UN, US and EU.

“The stability of Ethiopia is important for the entire Horn of Africa region. I call for an immediate de-escalation of tensions and a peaceful resolution to the dispute,” the UN secretary general, António Guterres, wrote on Twitter.

Experts fear a protracted and disastrous conflict that could “seriously strain an Ethiopian state already buffeted by multiple grave political challenges, and send shockwaves into the Horn of Africa region and beyond”.

“A war that many Ethiopians feared was possible but hoped would never happen appears to be under way … Unless urgently halted [it] will be devastating not just for the country but for the entire Horn of Africa,” the International Crisis Group said in a briefing on Thursday.

Tigray’s people make up 5% of Ethiopia’s 109 million population, but the region is wealthier and more influential than many other, larger, regions.

Under Abiy, Tigrayan leaders have complained of being unfairly targeted in corruption prosecutions, removed from top positions, and blamed for the country’s problems.

One factor in the latest crisis is the postponement of national elections due to the Covid-19 pandemic. National polls were due to take place in August, but electoral officials ruled in March that all voting would be delayed until the threat from the virus had eased.

When parliamentarians voted to extend officials’ mandates – which would have expired in early October – Tigrayan leaders went ahead with regional elections in September that Abiy’s government deemed illegal.

Now each side sees the other as illegitimate, and federal lawmakers have ruled that Abiy’s government should cut off contact with, and funding to, Tigray’s leadership.

The Tigray region is home to a large portion of the federal military personnel and the location of much of its equipment, a legacy of Ethiopia’s 1998-2000 border war with Eritrea, its northern neighbour.

Some analysts estimate that Tigray could muster more than half of the armed forces’ total personnel and mechanised divisions, meaning that neither side could be confident of a swift victory.

There are widespread fears that open conflict will inspire further secessionist sentiment in other parts of Ethiopia.

“We’re working to ensure the war won’t come to the centre of the country. It will end there in Tigray,” said general Berhanu.