Ethiopian government says it seized a town in Tigray

The conflict in the northern region is now embroiling Eritrea

Ethiopian migrants, who fled intense fighting in their homeland, gather in the Um Raquba camp in the town of Gadaref, east of Khartoum, on November 15, 2020, after being transported from the border reception centre. Around 25,000 Ethiopians fleeing conflict in the Tigray region have crossed into neighbouring Sudan, state news agency SUNA reported, as the UN said it was working to find them shelter. / AFP / Ebrahim HAMID

The government of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said it captured another town in the northern Tigray region after nearly two weeks of conflict that is spilling into Eritrea and destabilising the wider Horn of Africa.

Hundreds have died, at least 20,000 refugees fled to Sudan and there have been reports of atrocities since Mr Abiy ordered air strikes and a ground offensive against Tigray's rulers for defying his authority.

The conflict could jeopardise a recent economic boost, lead to ethnic bloodshed elsewhere in Africa's second most populous nation and tarnish the reputation of Mr Abiy, who won the Nobel Peace Prize last year for a peace pact with Eritrea.

The Tigray People's Liberation Front, which governs the Tigray region of more than five million people, accused Eritrea of sending tanks and thousands of soldiers across the border to support Ethiopian federal troops. Eritrea denies the claim.

The Front said its forces fired rockets into Eritrea at the weekend.

A task force set up by Mr Abiy, Africa's youngest leader, to manage the conflict said federal troops liberated the town of Alamata from the Front.

"They fled, taking along about 10,000 prisoners," the task force said, without specifying where the prisoners were from.

"Residents said many youth above the age of 14 had already fled the area for fear of being recruited by TPLF."

With communications mainly down and media barred from the area, Reuters could not independently verify assertions made by rival sides.

There was no immediate comment from Tigray's leaders on events in Alamata, near the border with Amhara regional state, about 120 kilometres from Tigray's capital Mekelle.

Fighting spreads

The fighting spread beyond Tigray into Amhara, where forces are allied with Mr Abiy's troops. On Friday, rockets were fired at two airports in Amhara in what the Front said was retaliation for government air strikes.

Map locates Eritrea and the Tigray region of Ethiopia

Tigray leaders accuse Mr Abiy, who is from the largest Oromo ethnic group, of persecuting them and purging them from government and security forces in the past two years. He said they rose up against him by attacking a military base.

The Ethiopian National Defence Force has about 140,000 personnel and plenty of experience from fighting militants in Somalia, rebel groups in border regions and a two-decade border stand-off with Eritrea.

But many senior officers were Tigrayan, much of its most powerful weaponry is in the region and the Front has seized the powerful Northern Command's headquarters in Mekelle.

There are reports of defections among Tigrayan members of the defence force. The Front has a formidable history, spearheading the rebel march to Addis Ababa that ousted a Marxist dictatorship in 1991 and bearing the brunt of a war with Eritrea that killed hundreds of thousands between 1998 and 2000.

Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, a long-time foe of the Tigrayan leaders, controls a vast standing army which the CIA says comprises 200,000 personnel.

Mr Abiy once fought alongside the Tigrayans and was a partner in government with them until 2018 when he took office, winning early plaudits for pursuing peace with Eritrea, starting to liberalise the economy and opening a repressive political system.

The UN, among other groups, urged Mr Abiy to negotiate with the Tigrayans and there have been reports the Ugandan government could mediate talks.

But Mr Abiy's Tigray task force denied that and repeated that it was committed to upholding the law in Tigray.

It previously said there would be no talks until Tigrayan leaders were arrested.