Ethiopian jets bombed the Tigray region on Friday and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed pledged more air strikes in the escalating conflict amid reports that Tigrayan forces had seized control of federal military sites and weapons.
Civilians in the northern region should avoid “collateral damage” by not gathering outside as strikes would continue, Abiy said in a televised speech on Friday evening, defying international pleas for both sides to show restraint.
The developments illustrate how quickly the days-old conflict is escalating, raising the threat of a civil war that experts and diplomats warn would destabilise the country of 110 million people and hurt the broader Horn of Africa.
A simmering row between Abiy’s federal government and his former Tigrayan allies exploded on Wednesday after Abiy ordered a military campaign. Abiy, who won last year’s Nobel Peace Prize, accused the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), of attacking a federal military base and trying to steal equipment. He said “the last red line” had been crossed.
In a step to further deny legitimacy to Tigray’s regional government elected in September against the federal government’s advise, Ethiopia’s federal parliament on Saturday approved the formation of an interim government for the region.
“A decision has been passed to remove the current executive body and council of (Tigray) region,” Ethiopia’s House of Federation said in a statement on its Facebook page.
Diplomats, regional security officers and aid workers have told Reuters that fighting is spreading in the northwestern part of the country, along Tigray’s border with the Amhara region, which is backing the federal government, and near the border with Sudan and Eritrea.
Abiy said on Friday that government troops had seized control of the town of Dansha, near the border area, from the TPLF.
After toppling a Marxist dictator in 1991, the TPLF led the country’s multi-ethnic ruling coalition until Abiy took office in 2018. For those decades, Tigrayans dominated the military.
Abiy, who is from the Oromo ethnic group, Ethiopia’s largest, has sacked many senior generals as part of a crackdown on past rights abuses and corruption which Tigrayans complain unfairly targets them.
Tigrayan forces are battle-hardened and possess significant stocks of military hardware, experts say. Their regional troops and associated militias number up to 250,000 men, according to the International Crisis Group think tank.
One of the biggest risks is that the Ethiopian army will splinter along ethnic lines, with Tigrayans defecting to the regional force. There are indications that is already happening, experts said.
Tigrayan forces were in control of the federal military’s Northern Command headquarters in the city of Mekelle, according to a United Nations internal security report dated Friday and seen by Reuters.
The Northern Command is one of Ethiopia’s four military commands and controls the border with Sudan, Djibouti and Eritrea.
It said that the command is the most heavily armed and contains “most of the military’s heavy weapons including the majority of the country’s mechanised and armoured units, artillery and air assets.”
The government is mobilising troops from around the country and sending them to Tigray, risking a security vacuum in other parts of the country where ethnic violence is raging.
More than 50 people were killed by gunmen from a rival ethnic group in western Ethiopia on Sunday, according to Amnesty International.
Troop redeployments from near the border with Somalia will make that area “more vulnerable to possible incursions by Al Shabaab,” the al Qaeda-linked insurgency trying to overthrow the government in Somalia, according to the U.N. internal security report.