Eleven bombs exploded Sunday afternoon in the capital of Ethiopia’s war-torn Tigray region in what appears to be the first major assault by rebel forces there, according to Ethiopian officials. The blast killed 19 people and injured at least 37, said Seyoum Mesfin, head of Ethiopia’s National Intelligence and Security Service.
The bombings come after Ethiopian troops, backed by the U.S., drove out rebel forces aligned with Eritrea in neighboring Somalia earlier this month, but amid reports that both the rebels and their Eritrean backers have resumed operations within their own borders. Ethiopia accuses Eritrea of supporting the rebels in its fertile north, which is also a region in conflict with Djibouti, from which Somalia gets much of its aid.
Both countries also claim to have been the victims of a deadly Jan. 18 bombing at a Djibouti hotel, claimed by Somalia’s Al-Shabab, the group responsible for last year’s deadly suicide bombings in Mogadishu, including one that killed just four people.
“Al-Shabab are on a rampage,” Ethiopian state-affiliated media quoted Seyoum as saying on state-owned Radio Tigray. “Let them do all they want in their region. But we are going to protect ourselves.”
The Tigray Regional State, which shares a border with Eritrea and is the homeland of former Maoist rebels, has its own armed forces but has lost years of fighting over grievances such as a lack of economic and political development and a perceived authoritarian government.
Somalia has long been torn apart along religious and ethnic lines, but the current fighting in the north stems from longstanding claims over political and economic interests in the region.
The African Union peacekeeping mission to Somalia said Sunday it had established a 24-hour protective security zone and was “urgently” establishing a command post in Eritrea to respond to the attack.
The U.S. Embassy in Asmara said it was deeply concerned by the blasts.
“The Ethiopian people have suffered far too long and are losing faith in the political and military leaders who have failed to stop the violence,” the embassy said in a statement. “We call on the Ethiopian authorities to establish a strict no-fly zone to keep the extremists from bringing more havoc to Ethiopia and to her neighbors.”
The government said it was tracing the origin of the explosives.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.