Ethiopian warplanes bombard Tigray as Abiy denies 'chaos'

Robbie Corey-Boulet

Ethiopia's air force carried out airstrikes in the northern region of Tigray on Monday, as the prime minister sought to ease mounting concerns that the country is hurtling into civil war.

Abiy Ahmed, winner of last year's Nobel Peace Prize, last week launched a military operation in Tigray claiming authorities there had attacked two federal military bases, which they deny.

The sudden escalation came after months of tensions between Ethiopia's federal government in Addis Ababa and the semi-autonomous region of Tigray, whose leaders formerly controlled the government.

Several days of airstrikes have taken place, which Abiy previously said were targeting military assets, in what he terms an operation to restore law and order in a region whose leaders he accuses of seeking to destabilise the country.

"The air force is currently bombarding selected areas in the region," military official Major General Mohammed Tessema told state media Monday.

He rejected claims by the region's ruling Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) that they had shot down a warplane as "completely false".

Reports from the region are hard to verify because of a total communications blackout.

An AFP reporter saw trucks loaded with soldiers heading towards the town of Dansha in Tigray, alleged to be one of the sites where the TPLF attacked a military camp. 

In the town itself, a base belonging to the army's Northern Command appeared under federal control, with police officers posing for photos at the entrance. 

The TPLF has claimed that the command -- which has many Tigrayan troops -- had fallen under its control. 

Journalists visiting the base were quickly turned away and forced to leave town because military officials said fighting was occurring nearby, suggesting the area was still contested.

- 'Concerns unfounded' -

The international community has expressed concern about the potential for a drawn-out conflict in Africa's second most populous nation, pitting the powerful federal army against the large, battle-hardened military of the Tigray region.

"Concerns that Ethiopia will descend into chaos are unfounded and a result of not understanding our context deeply," Abiy wrote on Twitter, adding the operation "will wrap up soon by ending the prevailing impunity."

"Ethiopia is grateful for friends expressing their concern. Our rule-of-law operation is aimed at guaranteeing peace and stability once and for all by bringing perpetrators of instability to justice," Abiy said.

Abiy on Friday said airstrikes were aimed at military assets, but urged civilians to reduce mass gatherings to avoid becoming "collateral damage".

Meanwhile newly appointed army chief Berhanu Jula said federal forces had captured four towns in western Tigray where much of the fighting has reportedly been concentrated.

Reports of dead and wounded soldiers have mounted in the neighbouring Amhara region.

An AFP tally of numbers given by medical sources and aid workers show over 200 soldiers have been wounded and eight killed.

A UN report dated Saturday called on warring parties to allow humanitarian access in Tigray, warning that conflict-related disruptions were "contributing to the worsening of the humanitarian context".

The TPLF dominated politics in Ethiopia for nearly three decades before Abiy came to power in 2018.

Under Abiy, Tigray's leaders have complained of being unfairly targeted in corruption prosecutions, removed from top positions and broadly scapegoated for the country's woes.

Abiy has accused the party which "played a leading role in the systemic abuse of human rights and massive corruption" of seeking to derail his reformist agenda.

He said the party has "sponsored, trained and equipped any force that was willing to engage in violent and illegal acts to derail" the democratic transition he has pursued.

The long-running feud escalated after Tigray held its own elections in September, defying Abiy's government which had decided to postpone national polls because of the coronavirus pandemic.

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