PM says operations in Tigray ‘completed’ after army ‘in full control’ of Mekelle; TPLF promises to keep fighting.
Rockets launched from Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region again hit the capital of Eritrea, diplomats said on Sunday, as the US embassy in Asmara reported “six explosions” in the city.
The blasts – which the embassy said occurred about 10pm Saturday night (19:00 GMT) – came hours after Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed declared victory in his military campaign against Tigray’s ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
The attack marked the third time Asmara has come under fire from Tigray since military operations began there on November 4.
The TPLF justified that attack by accusing Ethiopia of enlisting Eritrean military support for its campaign in Tigray, which Ethiopia denies.
Two Addis Ababa-based diplomats told the AFP news agency that multiple rockets fired Saturday night appeared to have hit Asmara’s airport and military installations, though as with previous attacks it was unclear where they landed and what damage they might have caused.
Eritrea is one of the world’s most secretive countries, and the government has not commented on the rocket fire. The TPLF regards Eritrea, which has warm relations with Abiy, as an archenemy.
Abiy, last year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, declared on Saturday night that military operations in Tigray were “completed” after the army claimed control of the regional capital Mekelle.
The TPLF said it was withdrawing from Mekelle and promised to fight on as long as pro-Abiy forces have any kind of presence in Tigray, and analysts warned it could shift gears to adopt insurgency-style tactics.
Billene Seyoum, the prime minister’s spokeswoman, told Al Jazeera people in Mekelle were being “highly cooperative” on Sunday and federal forces had taken control of key infrastructure in the city, including the airport, government offices, and hospitals.
“Right now the national defence forces and their colleagues are in the process of stabilising the city… The TPLF is quite notorious for saying a lot of fabricated issues. They could be hiding out in areas within the vicinity of Mekelle. Part of the clearing process is going to be done on the outskirts of Mekelle over the next few days,” Seymoum said.
Thousands have died in the fighting and tens of thousands of refugees have streamed across the border into Sudan.
Tigray has been under a communications blackout throughout the conflict, making it difficult to assess the full toll of fighting that has included multiple rounds of air raids and at least one mass killing that led to hundreds of civilian deaths.
It was also impossible to independently verify Abiy’s claim that Mekelle, a city of half a million, was fully under federal government control.
Abiy said police were working to apprehend the TPLF’s leaders, who were not immediately reachable on Sunday and whose whereabouts are unknown.
Analyst Matt Bryden from Shahan Research said the TPLF has left major cities in the region and “we should expect them now to begin insurgency operations”.
“I would be very surprised if this was the end of the conflict. It may be the end of the three week ‘law enforcement’ operation that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed declared, but by all accounts there has been some fierce fighting and yet the TPLF forces and leadership seem to have withdrawn without presenting major resistance to federal forces,” he said.
The TPLF dominated Ethiopian politics from 1991 to 2018 as the most powerful member of a multi-ethnic coalition that ruled with an iron grip. The last few years of its rule were marked by bloody anti-government demonstrations with jails filled with tens of thousands of political prisoners.
When Abiy came to power in 2018, he sped up democratic reforms: freeing prisoners, removing the ban on political parties, and promising to hold the nation’s first free and fair elections.
But the TPLF and some other ethnically based parties accuse him of wanting to consolidate control at the expense of Ethiopia’s 10 regions. The constitution grants them wide-ranging powers over matters like taxation and security.
This year, Abiy postponed elections scheduled for August to next year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The TPLF accused him of a power grab, held its own regional elections in September and announced it no longer recognised federal authority.