The Ethiopian Air Force has 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, said Abiy 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.
“These air strikes aren’t aimed at civilians but rather at targets stored by this dangerous group,” he said, referring to hardware held by the TPLF, adding that the air force destroyed heavy weapons in Mekelle and its surrounding areas and alleging that the TPLF “has the desire to use them”.
The operation will continue “until the junta is made accountable by law”, he said.
There was no mention of casualties in what Abiy called the “first round of operation”.
Abiy’s announcement marked another escalation in clashes this week that experts say could slide into civil war.
There was no immediate response from the Tigray government, while the region is increasingly boxed in by movement restrictions and a six-month state of emergency imposed by the federal government.
Hours earlier, Abiy defended the military operations that were launched on Wednesday following an alleged deadly attack on a military base.
Abiy added that the “large-scale law enforcement operation” has “clear, limited and achievable objectives: to restore the rule of law and the constitutional order”.
He described the region’s leadership as “fugitives from justice … using the civilian population as human shields”.
On Thursday, the deputy army chief said the “country has entered into unexpected war”.
“Our country has entered into a war that it did not want. This war is a shameful war. It does not have a point. The people of Tigray and its youth and its security forces should not die for this pointless war. Ethiopia is their country,” the deputy chief of the army, Birhanu Jula, said on state television, adding that troops were being mustered from around the country and dispatched to Tigray.
On the same day, Tigray regional president, Debretsion Gebremichael, said: “I stated that they have decided to go to war and we should all prepare to foil it. This is our proclamation, so let it be clear.
“There is no reason for this because the people of Tigray held an election. There was nothing new that happened. This is the action of a self-loving government that is trying to resolve, albeit though not possible, political differences through force, weapons, and war. That is why they have declared war on the people of Tigray.”
The northern Tigray region is increasingly cut off as Ethiopia’s civil aviation authority said airports in Mekelle and the regional cities of Shire, Axum and Humera were “closed for any services”.
In Sudan, the acting governor of Kassala province said its border with northern Ethiopia has closed “until further notice” due to the tensions, the Sudan News Agency reported.
The TPLF was the dominant political force in Ethiopia’s multiethnic ruling coalition for decades, but quit after Abiy, a member of the Oromo ethnic group, took office two years ago and reorganised the coalition into a single party.
Countries in the region fear that the crisis could escalate into an all-out war under Abiy, who won the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize for ending a decades-old conflict with neighbouring Eritrea but has had to contend with outbreaks of ethnic unrest.
Tensions with the TPLF have been escalating since September when Tigray held regional elections in defiance of the federal government, which called the vote “illegal”.
Sources said efforts were under way behind the scenes to encourage talks, pushed by the African Union. But the initiative was being resisted by authorities in Addis Ababa who insist they have to eliminate a threat posed by the TPLF.