Ethiopia's central government launches offensive in Tigray region

Ethiopia's federal military operations in the north have "clear, limited and achievable objectives," Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said on Friday, after the head of the United Nations said he was deeply alarmed by fighting in the country's Tigray region.

Conflict between Abiy Ahmed government, Tigray People's Liberation Front has intensified

Ethiopian Orthodox Christians light candles and pray for peace during a church service at the Medhane Alem Cathedral in the Bole Medhanealem area of the capital Addis Ababa on Thursday night as the conflict in Tigray has intensified. (Mulugeta Ayene/The Associated Press)

The Ethiopian Air Force bombed arms depots and destroyed military hardware in the northern Tigray region on Friday, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said.

The strikes hit sites in and around the regional capital Mekelle and destroyed heavy artillery including rocket launchers, Abiy said in a statement broadcast by state-affiliated Fana on Friday evening.

Abiy, who won last year's Nobel Peace Prize, launched a military campaign on Wednesday against the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), which dominated politics in the country until he came to office in 2018.

Ethiopia's leader justified his decision to launch a war in the north of the country, saying on Friday it was necessary to disarm a powerful ethnic faction that had oppressed the country for decades and whose leaders were fugitives.

In his first remarks since announcing the start of military action on Wednesday, Abiy said the campaign had "clear, limited and achievable objectives."

Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, seen on Feb. 3 in Addis Ababa, laid out his justifications for the military campaign on Friday night. (Michael Tewelde/Getty Images)

Abiy's government is mobilizing troops from around the country and sending them to Tigray, after two days of clashes between government forces and the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), long the most powerful political force in the country.

A key objective was to "disarm any security force of the regional state," the prime minister's office added in a statement that accused the TPLF of hiding in the regional capital Mekelle and "using the civilian population as human shields."

"Members of the TPLF, who ruled the country for the previous 27 years through means of oppression rather than law, have been fugitives from justice," it said, adding that those suspected of illegal activities would be detained.

TPLF officials were not immediately available for comment.

UN chief calls for de-escalation

United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres said he was deeply alarmed by the fighting.

"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," Guterres said in a message on Twitter seen on Friday.

The TPLF took power in Ethiopia in a revolution in 1991 and ruled as the most powerful faction in a multi-ethnic coalition until 2018, when Abiy took office. The prime minister has since reorganized the coalition into a single ruling party, which the TPLF refused to join.

Abiy, an ethnic Oromo, who has tried to open up what has long been one of the most restrictive political systems in Africa, won the Nobel Prize for ending a conflict with neighbouring Eritrea.

But he has failed to tamp down ethnic violence within his own country, which is divided into regions run by powerful local chiefs.

Ethiopia Map (CBC)

Sporadic sounds of shelling could be heard from Abdurafi town, near the Tigray-Amhara border, at 3 a.m local time on Friday, a humanitarian worker in the area told Reuters.

Two Ethiopian fighter jets were seen flying over Mekelle, the capital of Tigray, on Thursday afternoon, two diplomatic sources told Reuters, in what was described as a show of force by the Ethiopian National Defence Forces.

The Tigray administration, which is led by president Debretsion Gebremichael, said on Thursday it was well equipped to deal with an attack from any direction.

It said this week that it had taken over assets of the national defence force's northern command, one of the most heavily armed parts of the force, based in Tigray. Two diplomats and a regional military officer said the claim was credible.

"[The] conflict could test the national military's cohesion, putting particular stress on the Northern Command, which is based in Tigray," the International Crisis Group think tank said in a briefing.

Debretsion Gebremichael, Tigray's regional president, says its fighters are well equipped to deal with a military operation from the central government. (Tiksa Negeri/Reuters)

Federal troops are being helped by local forces from Amhara, its regional president, Temesgen Tiruneh, said in a Facebook post on Thursday. The two regions have been locked in a boundary dispute.

Ethiopia closed the airspace over Tigray to all flights on Thursday, the country's civil aviation authority said in a statement, and closed all the international and domestic flight routes that traverse its northern airspace.

In Sudan, the acting governor of Kassla province said its border with northern Ethiopia has closed "until further notice" due to the tensions, the Sudan News Agency reported.

With files from The Associated Press