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Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. Mr. Abiy announced on Friday that his military planes have launched air strikes on regional forces in several parts of Tigray.Ethiopian Public Broadcaster (EBC) / AFP

Heavy fighting between federal and regional troops in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, with aerial bombing and artillery weapons now involved, has sparked fears that the escalating war could spread across borders and destabilize much of the Horn of Africa.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced on Friday that his air force has launched strikes on regional forces in several parts of Tigray. He said the warplanes have bombed heavy artillery storage sites and other arms depots, destroying rocket launchers and other weapons in Tigray’s capital, Mekelle.

Mr. Abiy, speaking on state television, warned civilians in Tigray to reduce mass gatherings to avoid becoming casualties as the federal assault continues.

Ethiopian fighter jets have flown over Mekelle and the sound of shelling could be heard regularly in the region, according to multiple reports. Dozens of dead and injured were reported, but details were difficult to obtain because internet and telephone lines in Tigray were shut down.

“Unless urgently halted, the ongoing armed confrontation between Ethiopia’s federal forces and those commanded by the northern Tigray region’s leadership will be devastating not just for the country but for the entire Horn of Africa,” the International Crisis Group said in a statement.

It warned of the probability of “catastrophic consequences” for Ethiopia, the second-most populous country in Africa with 115 million people.

Mr. Abiy sent troops into Tigray earlier this week, seeking to subdue a rebellion by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), a powerful faction that ruled the country for decades until Mr. Abiy’s ascent to the highest office in 2018. The region has been increasingly defiant since September, organizing a regional election that the federal government called “illegal.” In retaliation, the federal government has cut off all relations with Tigray, including the termination of financial support.

Tigray’s leaders have blamed the Abiy government for the military conflict, denying Mr. Abiy’s allegations that the TPLF attacked an Ethiopian military camp in Tigray. “What has been initiated against us is clearly a war, an invasion,” TPLF chairman Debretsion Gebremichael said at a news conference. “This is a war we’re conducting to preserve our existence.”

Sudan announced that it is closing its border with Ethiopia because of “security tensions,” while Eritrea and Djibouti have also sealed their borders with Ethiopia. There are concerns that the Tigray conflict could provoke fighting with neighbouring Eritrea and a withdrawal of Ethiopian troops from Somalia.

Mr. Abiy won a Nobel Peace Prize last year for negotiating a peace agreement with neighbouring Eritrea and for taking major steps toward democracy, including the release of political prisoners. But since then, tensions and violence have increased in the Tigray and Oromia regions of the country, and secessionist movements seem to be growing.

At least 54 people were killed last weekend by suspected members of the rebel Oromo Liberation Army. Ethnic killings “have become almost routine across the country,” the International Crisis Group said.

The new war in Tigray is heightening the fears of prolonged conflict in the country. “I’m deeply alarmed over the situation in the Tigray region of Ethiopia,” United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in a tweet on Thursday night.

“The stability of Ethiopia is important for the entire Horn of Africa region. I call for an immediate de-escalation of tensions and a peaceful resolution to the dispute.”

Canadian, U.S. and European officials have also called for restraint and a search for peaceful solutions. “Canada is concerned by the latest developments in Ethiopia,” the Canadian embassy in Addis Ababa said in a tweet. “We call on all parties to work together to de-escalate tensions in Tigray & urge them to ensure the safety and protection of civilians.”

Mr. Abiy pushed back against the international pressure on Friday, insisting that the military campaign in Tigray had “clear, limited and achievable objectives.”

In a statement, he said his government was forced to take “law enforcement measures” because of the “unceasing belligerence” of the TPLF, which he denounced as a criminal clique. He accused the TPLF of “horrendous crimes, including a surprise attack on an Ethiopian military camp in Tigray earlier this week.

The deputy chief of Ethiopia’s army, Berhanu Jula, said the country “has entered into a war it didn’t anticipate.”

The emerging war in Tigray could be brutal and protracted. Tigray, bordering Eritrea, was heavily militarized during the 20-year border dispute between Ethiopia and Eritrea, which finally ended in 2018.

“Tigray has a large paramilitary force and a well-drilled local militia, thought to number perhaps 250,000 troops combined,” the International Crisis Group said. “The region’s leadership also appears to enjoy significant support from Tigray’s approximately six million people, again suggesting that war could be lengthy and bloody.”

Even if Ethiopian troops manage to topple the TPLF leadership quickly, battle-hardened TPLF loyalists could mount “sustained armed resistance,” the Crisis Group said.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has voiced alarm at the growing war in Tigray. “We are deeply concerned that a military escalation in northern Ethiopia could trigger a wider humanitarian emergency in which people are displaced from their homes and unable to meet their basic needs,” said Katia Sorin, the ICRC head of delegation in Ethiopia, in a statement on Friday.

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