Rockets fired from Ethiopia have hit the capital of neighbouring Eritrea, diplomats and witnesses said, as the deadly fighting between Ethiopian government troops and rebel forces in the northern Tigray region appeared to spill across international borders.
At least three rockets were fired at Asmara on Saturday evening, five diplomats told the Reuters news agency.
At least two of them hit the city’s airport, three diplomats said.
Radio Erena, a Paris-based diaspora station sympathetic to the Eritrean opposition, said Asmara residents reported hearing “four explosions in total”.
Al Jazeera’s Mohammed Adow, reporting from the city of Gondar in Ethiopia’s Amhara region, said one of the rockets fired at Asmara was aimed at a building housing the Eritrean Ministry of Information and a number of local media outlets.
“Eye-witnesses tell us that the rocket that targeted the Ministry of information missed its mark and fell outside the building,” he said.
“We don’t have any word on casualties. But what we do know is that this is a huge escalation of the conflict that has so far been restricted to the borders of Ethiopia, and particularly to the Tigray region. Now, it has crossed international borders and it is something that could bring Eritrea into the conflict.”
With most communications down in Tigray and Eritrea, officials on both sides could not be reached and it was not immediately clear where in Tigray the rockets were fired from or what damage they inflicted.
Saturday’s attacks came hours after Tigray’s ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), threatened to attack Eritrean targets. The TPLF, which once dominated Ethiopia’s ruling coalition, had previously accused Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of enlisting military support from Eritrea.
“We will launch a missile attack to foil any military movement in Asmara and Massawa,” Getachew Reda, the TPLF spokesman, told a local television station. Massawa is an Eritrean port on the Red Sea.
Eritrea and Ethiopia signed a peace deal two years ago, but President Isaias Afwerki’s government in Asmara remains hostile to the Tigray leadership after their role in a devastating 1998-2000 war.
Eritrea’s Foreign Minister Osman Saleh Mohammed denied sending troops to Ethiopia on Tuesday, telling Reuters: “We are not part of the conflict”.
Abiy launched a military campaign against Tigray’s leaders last week, after accusing them of attacking federal troops based in the northern region that borders Eritrea and Sudan.
A top TPLF official appeared on Saturday to confirm that claim. 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”.
The fighting has killed hundreds of people on both sides, sent thousands of civilians fleeing into Sudan and raised fears it could destabilise other parts of Ethiopia and the wider Horn of Africa region.
Several refugees arriving in the Sudanese border town of Hamdayat told Reuters that their areas in Ethiopia had been shelled from Eritrea.
“We were shelled by artillery volleys from across the Eritrean border,” said Naksiam Guru, a 22-year refugee who lives near the border. “I saw people dying in the streets.”
Hamdayat is home to a camp hosting 8,000 refugees. Several hundred arrived on Saturday morning, some crossing a border river in boats, some swimming or wading through the water.
The strikes on Eritrea came on the same day that the TPLF claimed rocket attacks on two airports in Ethiopia’s Amhara region. The TPLF said the attacks were in retaliation for government air raids against their region.
“Yesterday evening we’ve inflicted heavy damages on the military components of the Gondar and Bahir Dar airports,” Getachew, the TPLF spokesman, said in a statement on Saturday, referring to the affected cities.
“As long as the attacks on the people of Tigray do not stop, the attacks will intensify,” he added.
Abiy has said government warplanes were bombing military targets in Tigray, including arms depots and equipment controlled by Tigrayan forces. The government says its military operations are aimed at restoring the rule of law in the mountainous state of five million people.
The Amhara government said the airport in Gondar was hit while another rocket aimed at the Bahir Dar airport missed its target. The federal government acknowledged that “the airport areas have sustained damages”, adding that a doctor said two soldiers were killed and up to 15 wounded.
“The TPLF junta is utilising the last of the weaponry within its arsenals,” the federal government’s emergency task force wrote on Twitter.
As the fighting intensifies, fears of ethnic attacks are rising.
Ethiopia’s Human Rights Commission, appointed by the government but independent, said it was sending a team of investigators to the Tigray town of Mai Kadra to investigate reports of mass killings.
Amnesty International said on Thursday that scores and possibly hundreds of civilians were stabbed and hacked to death in the region on November 9, citing images and witnesses. It said it had not been able to independently confirm who was responsible but said the witnesses had blamed fighters loyal to Tigray’s leaders.
The Tigray state government denied any involvement by TPLF members or the state’s special police force in “this most tragic event”.
The rights commission said in a statement it would investigate all allegations of human rights violations in the conflict.
“In this part of the world, any war is immediately a humanitarian crisis because of the socioeconomic situation, the presence of multiple borders and various ethnic groups” said William Lawrence, professor of political science at the George Washington University in the United States.
“You’ve got a lot of ethnic animosities and grievances. So, as soon as the killings and the atrocities start, it can spread to other areas rather quickly unless it is contained and de-escalated,” he told Al Jazeera.