US warns pilots of possible ‘surface-to-air fire’ in Ethiopia

An FAA advisory warns clashes between government forces and TPLF could threaten flights if fighting reaches the capital.

A member of the ground crew directs an Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner plane
The FAA said there have been no incidents to date at the Addis Ababa Bole International Airport related to the fighting [File: Tiksa Negeri/Reuters]

The United States has warned pilots that planes operating out of Ethiopia’s main international airport – one of busiest in Africa – could be “directly or indirectly exposed to ground weapons fire and/or surface-to-air fire” if the country’s spiralling conflict nears the capital, Addis Ababa.

A Federal Aviation Administration advisory cited the “ongoing clashes” between Ethiopian forces and fighters from the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), in the warning to pilots operating from the Addis Ababa Bole International Airport.

The warning was issued on Wednesday, a day after the US urged its citizens to leave the country immediately as the fighting risked further escalation.

The FAA advisory said there had been no reports of disruptions at the airport and “no indication of an intent to threaten civil aviation”.

It added that the risk to approaching and departing planes could increase if the Tigrayan fighters encircle the capital.

Ethiopia’s political scene and military were controlled by the Tigrayans for decades until Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed won the leadership vote in 2018 and sidelined Tigrayan leaders.

In response, the Tigrayans expelled the Ethiopian army in Tigray and marched into the neighbouring Amhara and Afar regions, while Abiy’s government sent troops north to quell the advance.

Both sides have been accused of committing atrocities during the year of fighting, which has killed thousands of people, displaced more than two million, and left hundreds of thousands facing famine-like conditions. Government forces have also been accused of blockading the northern area and inhibiting the flow of international aid.

Meanwhile, the African Union, the US, and other regional actors have been scrambling to calm the tensions in recent weeks.

On Thursday, Ethiopia’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Dina Mufti, told reporters that both African Union envoy, former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, and US envoy Jeffrey Feltman are currently in the country.

The FAA advisory said the Tigrayan fighters “likely possess a variety of anti-aircraft capable weapons, including rocket-propelled grenades, anti-tank weapons, low-calibre anti-aircraft artillery, and man-portable air-defence systems,” or MANPADS, which could reach up to 25,000 feet above ground level.

The international airport in Addis Ababa is the hub for state-owned Ethiopian Airlines, a symbol of Ethiopia’s former status as one of the world’s most rapidly growing economies before the war.

The airline in recent years became Africa’s largest and best-managed carrier, turning Addis Ababa into a major gateway to the continent.

Addis Ababa is also the continent’s diplomatic capital, hosting the headquarters of the African Union.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies