A bloody eight-month battle for control of Tigray state in northern Ethiopia spilled over to neighboring Afar region last week.
At least 20 civilians have been killed and 54,000 people have been displaced, according to reports, amid growing fears of a rapidly developing humanitarian crisis.
Several people in Afar told the BBC that rebels from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Tigray (TPLF) had killed civilians.
This accusation has not been independently verified.
The BBC has also heard reports of numerous airstrikes targeting TPLF positions in Afar in recent days.
The TPLF are fighting the Ethiopian army and its allies in Afar, which borders Tigray. An Afar spokesman said Tigrayan fighters captured three districts of Afar this week.
Afar activists say there is a desperate need for emergency food, water and shelter.
The TPLF was the regional government of Tigray until it was ousted by federal forces last November. The TPLF has been designated a terrorist organization by the Ethiopian government but the rebels say they are the legitimate regional government of Tigray.
What do we know about the fights?
Several sources in Afar told the BBC that TPLF fighters killed civilians in neighborhoods such as Yallo and Awra, as well as looted and torched homes.
A resident who fled Yallo district two days ago said people were killed while attending a funeral.
A video circulating on social networks echoes this claim. An Afar inhabitant, translated by an Amharic speaker next to him, said: “We were digging a grave with about twenty people. I lifted my clothes to let them know that we were civilians when they approached, but one of them shot us. The BBC did not verify the claim.
A TPLF spokesperson tweeted that the rebels were not at war with the Afar people, but with the Ethiopian leadership.
Why might Afar be a target for the rebels?
This is not the first time that the brutal conflict between the TPLF and the federal forces of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has crossed Ethiopia’s internal borders. There has already been fighting in Amhara State which, at the start of the war, seized the Tigrayan territory which Amhara claims as its own.
But insecurity in the Afar region worries many Ethiopian observers that the conflict could turn from a regional crisis to a national crisis.
“This is very important,” said Rashid Abdi, a Nairobi-based security expert in the Horn of Africa.
“Afar straddles several strategic highways: one linking Tigray to [the rest of] Ethiopia. Another is the main highway connecting Ethiopia to Djibouti. “
Ethiopia is a landlocked country and 95% of its freight traffic uses this highway, he says. “If the TPLF takes over this corridor, it will cause serious disruption to Ethiopia.
Will Davison, an Ethiopian analyst at the International Crisis Group, agrees that trade disruption could be the strategy behind the TPLF’s offensive in Afar.
“The main objective was to build on the recent gains and fighting in Afar that the federal and regional forces that Mr. Abiy had assembled to launch a new offensive on Tigray, but a possible objective is to cut the road to Djibouti – or at least to demonstrate that they have the capacity to do so, ”he said.
“Another possible reason is that there could be an effort by Tigrayian forces to try to improve humanitarian access across the region.”
How serious is the humanitarian situation?
Getting aid to Tigray has been extremely difficult in recent months, despite the urgent needs there.
On Thursday, the international authority on the classification of famine – the Integrated Phase Classification (IPC) as it is called – said 400,000 people in Tigray were experiencing catastrophic levels of hunger.
The IPC says four million people across Tigray, Amhara and Afar are in need of some kind of emergency assistance.
But the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) has suspended aid deliveries along the Afar road after a 10-vehicle convoy attacked Sunday to Tigray.
The convoy was 120 km (75 miles) from the regional capital, Semera, when the attack took place. WFP says another convoy of more than 200 trucks containing food and other essential humanitarian supplies is currently waiting in the town – but it will not leave for Tigray until its safety is assured.
It’s unclear who attacked the WFP convoy, but Matt Bryden of think tank Sahan Research says it’s likely local pro-government militias are to blame.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s rhetoric has taken a worrying turn. Over the weekend, he issued a statement calling the TPLF “cancer.” On Thursday, tens of thousands of supporters gathered in Addis Ababa to show their support for the military – some holding banners quoting Mr. Abiy’s words.
“Unless dramatic change occurs soon, Ethiopia could be on the verge of state bankruptcy,” Bryden said. “Five years ago the Ethiopian army was the most powerful in the region. The fact that she was unable to secure Tigray shows how quickly the situation has deteriorated.