ADDIS ABABA, July 19 (Reuters) – Forces from Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region launched attacks in the neighboring Afar region, an Afar spokesperson said on Monday, marking the expansion of an eight-month-old conflict in a previously untouched area.
Tigrayan fighters entered Afar on Saturday and Afar forces and allied militias were still fighting them on Monday, Afar spokesman Ahmed Koloyta said.
“Now (the Ethiopian military forces) are on their way and we will work with them to eliminate (the Tigrayan forces),” he said.
Getachew Reda, a spokesman for the Tigrayan forces, confirmed that they had fought this weekend in Afar.
“We are not interested in territorial gains in Afar, we are more interested in the degradation of the enemy’s combat capabilities,” he said by satellite phone.
He said Tigrayan forces pushed back militias from Ethiopia’s Oromiya region who had been sent to fight alongside Afar regional forces.
Reuters could not independently confirm his account.
A military spokesperson and officials from Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s office and a government task force on Tigray did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Thousands of people have died in the Tigray conflict so far. About 2 million people have been forced to flee their homes and more than 5 million depend on emergency food assistance.
Ethiopia has a federal system with 10 regions and last week the Tigray conflict drew regional forces across the country as they deploy to support the federal army.
Fighting erupted in November between the Tigray Popular Liberation Front (TPLF) in power in the region and the army. Three weeks later, the government declared victory by seizing the regional capital Mekelle, but the TPLF continued to fight.
In late June, the TPLF recaptured Mekelle and most of Tigray after the government withdrew its troops and declared a unilateral ceasefire. Read more
The spillover of war into another part of Africa’s second most populous nation could weigh more heavily on Abiy.
He won the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, but faces international criticism of the conflict amid reports of atrocities committed by federal forces and troops from neighboring Eritrea who fought alongside them. His government says it is investigating such reports.
The TPLF dominated Ethiopia for decades as the most powerful force in a multi-ethnic coalition, until Abiy took power two years ago. They say they were forced into conflict after the failed attempts to mediate with Abiy and ensure their region’s autonomy in accordance with the constitution.
The government designated the TPLF as a terrorist organization in May.
ASSISTANCE CONVOY ATTACKED
TPLF leaders said they would continue to fight until they regained control of disputed territory in southern and western Tigray, which was seized during the fighting by allies of the government of the Amhara region.
On Sunday, Abiy said the Ethiopian army was ready to defeat the Tigrayan forces.
Forces in the Amhara region, which has a border dispute with Tigray, have supported the army since the start of the conflict. Three other regions said on Friday they were sending forces to support the military. Read more
The Somali region announced on Sunday that it was also sending troops, as did the Benishangul-Gumuz region on Monday. Gambella and Harari regions also said they were sending troops, state-owned Ethiopia Broadcasting Corporation reported.
Afar is strategically important because the road and railway connecting the capital Addis Ababa to the seaport of Djibouti cross it. Djibouti is the main access to the sea of landlocked Ethiopia.
Over the weekend, the TPLF chief said Tigrayan forces freed around 1,000 government soldiers captured in recent fighting. Read more
The International Committee of the Red Cross announced on Sunday that it had started visiting soldiers detained in Tigray.
The United Nations World Food Program said on Monday that its convoy of nine trucks was attacked Sunday morning while transporting aid to Tigray.
The convoy was attacked 115 km (70 miles) from the town of Semera in Afar, the agency said. WFP has suspended the movement of all convoys from Semera until safety is assured.
(This story is passed on to correct a typo in the 6th paragraph and adds a second signature)
Additional reporting and writing by Maggie Fick in Nairobi; edited by Katharine Houreld and Angus MacSwan
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