At least two of the rockets hit the Asmara airport, three diplomats said, hours after the Tigray regional government warned it might attack.

Amhara militia men, that combat alongside federal and regional forces against northern region of Tigray, receive training in the outskirts of the village of Addis Zemen, north of Bahir Dar, Ethiopia on November 10, 2020.
Amhara militia men, that combat alongside federal and regional forces against northern region of Tigray, receive training in the outskirts of the village of Addis Zemen, north of Bahir Dar, Ethiopia on November 10, 2020. (AFP)

The leader of Ethiopia’s Tigray region has confirmed his forces fired missiles at neighboring Eritrea’s capital, and he is threatening more strikes.

The confirmation on Sunday marks a huge escalation as the deadly fighting in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region now spills across an international border.

Tigray regional President Debretsion Gebremichael, in an interview with The Associated Press, would not say how many missiles were fired at the city of Asmara on Saturday but said it was the only city in Eritrea that was targeted.

He said his forces were fighting "16 divisions" of the Eritrean army  "on several fronts" for the past few days. He did not specify where, but did say Eritrean forces were deployed and fight ing along Ethiopia's border.

He warned of further strikes saying“we will take any legitimate military target and we will fire.”

The offensive against Eritrea came the same day the ruling party in Tigray, the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), claimed rocket attacks on two airports in a separate region of Ethiopia.

At least two of the rockets hit the airport in Eritrean capital Asmara on Saturday night, three diplomats had earlier said. Eritrea is one of the world's most reclusive countries, and details on any deaths or damage were not known. 

Experts had warned that Eritrea, long at bitter odds with the Tigray regional government, or Tigray People's Liberation Front, could be pulled into Ethiopia's growing conflict that has killed untold hundreds of people on each side and sent some 25,000 refugees fleeing into Sudan.

The latest attacks exacerbated concerns that a conflict Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has vowed would be quick and contained could instead snowball and destabilise the broader Horn of Africa region.

READ MORE: UN calls for full inquiry into possible war crimes in Ethiopia

Abiy, last year's Nobel Peace Prize winner, announced November 4 he had ordered military operations in Tigray in a dramatic escalation of a long-running feud with the TPLF.

Hundreds of people are reported to have been killed in the conflict in Africa's second most populous country, some in a gruesome massacre documented by Amnesty International.

Thousands have fled fighting and air strikes in Tigray, crossing to neighbouring Sudan.

The TPLF accuses Abiy's government of enlisting military support from Eritrea, something Ethiopia denies.

Earlier on Saturday, the TPLF said it fired rockets at two airports in the neighbouring Amhara region of Ethiopia, as the conflict spreads into other parts of Africa’s second-most populous country and threatens civil war at the heart of the Horn of Africa.

Getachew Reda, a senior TPLF member, had earlier on Saturday threatened retaliatory "missile attacks" on Asmara and the Eritrean port city of Massawa.

It was not immediately clear how many rockets were fired, where in Tigray they were fired from, whether they hit their targets or what damage they inflicted.

'Full-blown humanitarian crisis'

Ethiopia's federal government said the airports in Gondar and Bahir Dar were damaged in the strikes late on Friday, asserting that Tigray regional forces were “repairing and utilising the last of the weaponry within its arsenals.”

Each side in the fighting regards the other as illegal, the result of a months-long falling out amid dramatic shifts in power after Nobel Peace Prize-winning Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took office two years ago.

The Tigray regional government, which once dominated the country’s ruling coalition, broke away last year, and the federal government says members of the region's ruling “clique” now must be arrested and their well-stocked arsenal destroyed.

Communications and transport links with the Tigray region remain severed, making it difficult to verify claims on both sides. Desperate families cannot reach relatives, and the United Nations and other humanitarian organisations warn of disaster as food, fuel and other supplies run short for millions of people.

“The military escalation in Ethiopia is risking the stability of the whole country and wider region,” the European Union's commissioner for crisis management, Janez Lenarcic, tweeted. “Should this endure, a full-blown humanitarian crisis is imminent. I am calling for unimpeded humanitarian access to Tigray.”

READ MORE: Ethiopia's conflict with Tigray region continues

Ethnic targeting

Fears of ethnic targeting are rising. The TPLF in a statement denied allegations that scores or even hundreds of civilians were “hacked to death” on Monday in the town of Mai-Kadra. The massacre was confirmed by Amnesty International, which cited a man helping to clear away bodies as saying many of the dead were ethnic Amharas.

The statement by Tigray regional president Debretsion Gebremichael asserted that the allegations against the TPLF forces, repeated by Abiy, are “being proliferated with the intent to incite hatred toward (ethnic) Tigrayans in Ethiopia.”

“A justified risk/threat of fear of ethnic profiling and discrimination has arisen,” the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission said in a statement Saturday. It has visited 43 people in police custody in the capital, Addis Ababa, and said “some of the detained have reported that they have been arrested only because of their ethnicity.”

The international community is warning against deadly ethnic tensions. The UN office on genocide prevention has said the rhetoric sets a “dangerous trajectory that heightens the risk of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.”

Meanwhile, a top TPLF official appeared to confirm the federal government’s claim that TPLF forces sparked the conflict by attacking a military base. Sekoutoure Getachew in a video discussion said pre-emptive strikes were carried out in self-defence against the Ethiopian army’s Northern Command, calling it an “internationally known practice.”

There is no sign of any easing in the fighting. Abiy has rejected growing calls by the United States and others for an immediate de-escalation.

READ MORE: What led to Abiy Ahmed’s military operation in Ethiopia's Tigray region?

Source: AP