Attacks from Tigrayan forces in Ethiopia’s Afar region have forced more than 54,000 people from their homes, an official said on Thursday, as the eight-month-old conflict appeared to be spreading beyond Tigray in the north.
Tigrayan fighters seized control of three districts in Afar this week, according to Afar regional spokesperson Ahmed Koloyta.
The region is of strategic importance because the main road and railway linking Addis Ababa, landlocked Ethiopia’s capital, to the sea port of Djibouti run through it.
Ahmed quoted some of the displaced people as saying Tigrayan fighters had burned houses, looted properties and killed civilians. He provided no evidence and Reuters could not verify his claims independently.
Getachew Reda, spokesman for the Tigrayan forces, did not immediately return calls seeking comment on the accusations.
Debretsion Gebremichael, leader of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), told Reuters via satellite phone earlier on Thursday that Tigrayan forces were in Afar and said they planned to target forces from the neighboring Amhara region, which has been fighting on behalf of the government.
He was not immediately reachable for comment on Ahmed’s claims.
War erupted in November between the TPLF, Tigray’s ruling party, and the military. Three weeks later, the government declared victory when it captured the regional capital Mekelle, but the TPLF kept fighting.
At the end of June, the TPLF seized back control of Mekelle and most of Tigray after the government withdrew soldiers. Since then, Ethiopia’s other nine regions announced they were sending forces to support the military against Tigrayan fighters.
The conflict has sparked international criticism of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and concern for the stability of Africa’s second most populous nation.
Djibouti said the situation was “very worrying,” Alexi Mohamed, chief adviser to the president, told Reuters.
Getachew, the TPLF spokesman, told Reuters via satellite phone on Tuesday that Tigrayan forces would do “whatever it takes” to get the government to accept their conditions for ceasefire negotiations.
Those include the full withdrawal of government troops and their allies from Tigray’s pre-war borders and the restoration of services such as electricity, telecommunications, transport links and banking.
On Sunday, gunmen attacked a United Nations’ World Food Programme truck convoy, halting the movement of food aid into Tigray.