Rebel forces from Ethiopia’s Tigray region claimed they shot down a military plane and retook a town from federal forces on Sunday, a day after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed declared victory in the northern region.
Debretsion Gebremichael, leader of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), told the Reuters news agency in a text message that his forces also captured the pilot of the military plane.
There was no immediate comment from the government or the military, while claims from all sides are difficult to verify since phone and internet links to the northern Tigray region have been down and access tightly controlled since the conflict began on November 4.
The Ethiopian government has been trying to quell a rebellion by the TPLF, a powerful ethnically based party that dominated the central government for nearly three decades until Abiy came to power in 2018. Thousands of people are believed to have been killed since the fighting began, more than 43,000 have fled to neighbouring Sudan, and there are reports of militias attacking civilians.
The conflict has been a difficult test for Abiy, a leader who pledged to unite the myriad ethnic groups that make up Ethiopia’s 115 million population, but who has faced repeated bouts of violence across the country. The flow of refugees and rocket attacks by the TPLF on neighbouring Eritrea also threaten to destabilise the wider Horn of Africa region.
Abiy, who has rebuffed international offers to mediate, said on Saturday evening that federal troops had taken control of the Tigrayan capital Mekelle, allaying fears of protracted fighting in the city of 500,000 people. He said federal police would try to arrest TPLF “criminals” and bring them to court.
Police then issued arrest warrants for 17 military officers on charges of treason and embezzlement of public properties, state-affiliated Fana TV reported. Arrest warrants already exist for 117 other senior officers with alleged ties to the TPLF.
Spectre of armed war
It was not clear if any TPLF leaders had surrendered or been apprehended since Saturday. Their whereabouts were also unknown. Even as the TPLF withdrew from Mekelle, Debretsion, the group’s chairman, told Reuters his forces would fight on – a declaration that raised the spectre of a drawn-out armed war. In Sunday’s text messages, he said the TPLF had also retaken the town of Axum.
Also on Sunday, Ethiopian state television said that 70 graves, some holding individual and some multiple bodies, were found in the town of Humera in Tigray, and quoted witnesses who claimed the victims were killed by pro-TPLF fighters.
The report could not be independently verified.
Human rights investigators and civilians fleeing the conflict say fighters from both sides, including civilian militias supporting more formal security forces, have carried out mass killings. Both the government and the TPLF deny their forces were involved.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said Mekelle was quiet on Sunday. But it said in a statement hospitals were running low on supplies such as gloves to care for the wounded, and one hospital lacked body bags for the dead.
At Ayder Referral Hospital, one of the city’s biggest, the ICRC said it “found approximately 80 percent of patients to be suffering from trauma injuries,” without specifying how the injuries were sustained.
“The influx of wounded forced the hospital to suspend many other medical services so that limited staff and resources could be devoted to emergency medical care,” the ICRC added.
Attacks on Asmara
Regional diplomats and experts have also said that a quick military victory in Mekelle might not mark the end of the conflict.
On Saturday, hours after Abiy announced Mekelle had fallen to federal forces, rockets were launched from Tigray hitting Asmara, the capital of neighbouring Eritrea, two diplomats told the AFP news agency.
The rockets appeared to be aimed at Asmara’s airport and military installations, though it was unclear where they landed and what damage they might have caused. The US embassy in Asmara reported that “six explosions” had occurred in the city “at about 10:13pm” (19:13 GMT) on Saturday.
The TPLF has accused Eritrea of sending troops into Tigray in support of the Ethiopian government and said it fired rockets at Asmara on November 14.
The TPLF has a history of armed resistance. Tigray’s mountainous terrain and borders with Sudan and Eritrea helped the group during its long struggle against Marxist strongman Mengistu Haile Mariam, whom it eventually toppled in 1991.
The TPLF and Eritrean forces fought together against Mengistu, and Eritrea secured its independence from Ethiopia with his departure. But relations soured soon after. The two nations went to war over a border dispute in 1998-2000.
Abiy won a Nobel Peace Prize last year for making peace with Eritrea, but the TPLF continues to regard the country as a mortal enemy.
Abiy’s government launched the offensive in Tigray after what it described as an attack by local forces on federal troops stationed there.
The TPLF accuses Abiy of wanting to consolidate control at the expense of Ethiopia’s 10 regions, which exercise wide-ranging powers over matters such as taxation and security. Abiy denies this.
Tensions escalated after Tigray held a regional election in September in defiance of the federal government, which had postponed voting nationwide in August because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The government called the Tigray vote illegal.