Airstrikes hit the capital of Ethiopia’s war-torn Tigray region Sunday, amid escalating violence between the military and militias that have claimed more than 150 lives in the last month, officials said.
The Reuters news agency reports at least one wounded died of wounds in Gondar, a major city in the region, and an Ethiopian military spokesman said a number of people were killed in the attack.
“Ethiopian army and people coming out from Gondar clashes and killing people,” Ejigayehu Mulugeta, spokesman for the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), a group that fights for the independence of Tigray, told The Associated Press.
He blamed the strikes on Ethiopia’s military, accusing it of perpetrating systematic attacks on the mostly ethnic-minority country’s ethnic Hema people, who make up about 44 percent of the population.
The Hema have strong links to Somaliland, which declared independence from Somalia in 1991 and has enjoyed years of relative calm since fighting ravaged the south of the Horn of Africa country in the early 1990s.
Ethiopia, however, does not recognize Somaliland’s breakaway and in the past has deployed soldiers to regional border areas to crack down on simmering Hema tensions with Somaliland.
Gondar has seen frequent clashes between TPLF-affiliated soldiers and the Somaliland police. Residents in the city, which is located on the frontier between the two countries, say security forces have barricaded nearby streets for weeks.
Two days before the strike, Somaliland President Ahmed Mohamed Mohamoud Silanyo accused Ethiopia of committing “a series of heinous crimes” to force the Horn of Africa country to recognize it as an independent nation.
Al Jazeera describes the increased friction between Somaliland and Ethiopia as, “fueled by a decade-long conflict between the TPLF – which is perceived to have strong ties to Somali Islamists in Ethiopia – and the Hema people.
Ethiopia’s Tigray region borders Somaliland, Djibouti, Kenya and Kenya.
About five percent of the population of Tigray region lives in Somaliland, according to the United Nations. Ethiopia says the majority of Tigray is Hutu, of whom Ethiopians make up 47 percent of the population.
Al Jazeera says the violence has erupted in the streets and surrounding buildings of Gondar, which has a population of 1.4 million. Militias have set up checkpoints throughout the city and are looting and burning cars.
In a region that has long known violence and sporadic state and militia activity, the violence in Gondar has generated intense public outcry, even as it has been met with a collective shrug by most Somalilanders.
Gondar residents have largely avoided state and police institutions since 2011, when Ethiopia’s state of emergency ended. Without electricity, access to the internet and independent media, they have been forced to rely on rumors and through ongoing social media posts to report on the events.
BBC reports that residents have erected tire barricades to prevent the military and militia from entering the city.
On Sunday, several hundred demonstrators called for an end to the violence and to give peace a chance to prevail, according to the BBC.
Protests in the former Danish colony have been led by the TPLF, which became a de facto semi-autonomous province following an armed revolt by Hema civilians in 1991. But after 29 years of peace, they and the government tussled over several land and natural resource issues.
Before the latest violence, the TPLF, as well as regional and international mediators, were set to settle those issues under the so-called peace agreement, which was supposed to cement a peace deal between the groups.
Officials on Sunday were hailing the recent signs of a reconciliation agreement between the Hema and the TPLF.
“Ethiopia says it recognizes Somaliland independence, so I’m really hoping for a final solution to what has been the strife here for many years,” Mejail, a resident, told Al Jazeera on Sunday.