Ethiopian military retakes Tigray, says PM, but explosions reported in Eritrean capital

Will Brown
The Ethiopian National Defence conducting exercises in September 2020 - STR/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock 
The Ethiopian National Defence conducting exercises in September 2020 - STR/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has declared military operations in the country’s northern Tigray region “completed’ and claimed that his federal forces had captured the crucial regional capital of Mekele. 

Due to an almost complete communications black out in Tigray, it was impossible to independently verify his statement.

The announcement on Saturday night came just hours before at least six rockets from northern Tigray hit Eritrea, according to diplomats, suggesting the prime minister's claims were premature.

Catastrophic fighting was expected over the weekend in Mekele when the Ethiopian army said it was surrounding the city of half a million people with tanks and artillery and warned civilians to stay inside. 

International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) staff visited government-run Ayder Referral Hospital yesterday, where they said approximately 80 per cent of patients were suffering from trauma injuries and basic supplies were dwindling. 

"The hospital is running dangerously low on sutures, antibiotics, anticoagulants, painkillers, and even gloves," said Maria Soledad, ICRC’s head of operations in Ethiopia.

It is thought that forces loyal to the powerful regional government, the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), may have tactically retreated into the nearby mountains days ago to avoid heavy clashes.

The TPLF is thought to command as many as 200,000 fighters, some of whom fought in the bloody Eritrea-Ethiopia war from 1998 to 2000. Because of these old hostilities with neighbouring Eritrea, Tigray is home to some of the largest stores of weapons in the country. 

The US embassy in the Eritrean capital Asmara reported early Sunday “six explosions” caused by rockets from Tigray region had occurred in the city “at about 10:13 pm” on Saturday night.

The strikes marked the third time that Asmara has been shot at since fighting began on November 4.

The TPLF has only claimed responsibility for the first rocket attack two weeks ago but has frequently accused Eritrea of siding with Ethiopian federal forces. 

Eritrea, Africa’s most totalitarian state, has not commented on the strikes.   The conflict began when Mr Abiy, last year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, announced that he was sending federal troops into Tigray in response to attacks by pro-TPLF forces on national army camps.

The move marked a dramatic escalation of tensions between the federal government and the TPLF, which dominated Ethiopian politics for nearly three decades before anti-government protests swept Mr Abiy to office in 2018.

Thousands have died in the conflict so far, with tens of thousands of refugees streaming across the border into Sudan. Each side has accused the other of grave crimes and mass killings.