Commercial airliners could be “directly or indirectly exposed to ground weapons fire and/or surface-to-air fire” at one of Africa’s busiest airports, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) warned in a new advisory to pilots.
The warning comes amidst continued fighting between Ethiopian government forces and armed separatists in the disputed Tigray region. Earlier this month, the US State Department urged its citizens to evacuate Ethiopia due to the armed conflict and civil unrest.
Non-essential US government employees have already left Ethiopia over safety concerns and fears the already fragile situation could escalate further and with little warning. U.S. citizens still in Etiopia have been urged to get out as quickly as possible using commercial air routes.
Those commercial air routes will likely depart from Addis Ababa International Airport.
The FAA, however, has cautioned pilots that commercial airlines could face the threat of being hit by fire from fighting close to the airport. The agency says there is currently no indication that civil aviation will be deliberately targeted.
The Ethiopian government declared an all-out war against separatists in the contested northern region of Tigray in November 2020 after fighters from the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) launched an attack on Ethiopian forces.
Both sides have been accused of horrific atrocities and in recent weeks the TPLF has threatened to march on the capital.
The TPLF and other anti-government fighters “likely possess a variety of anti-aircraft capable weapons, including rocket-propelled grenades, anti-tank weapons, low-calibre anti-aircraft artillery, and man-portable air-defence systems,” according to the FAA notice.
In 2002, an Israeli passenger aircraft operated by Arkia was targeted by Al-Qaeda terrorists with sophisticated surface-to-air rocket launchers as it departed from Mombasa airport in Kenya. The attack ultimately failed but the failure was likely more due to incompetence than weapon malfunction.
Sophisticated weapons jammers are occasionally deployed at major international airports in response to increased terror threats. It is not known whether the Ethiopian government possesses these systems.
In recent years, Addis Ababa has become Africa’s largest and busiest airline hub and the state-owned Ethiopian Airlines is described as “the jewel of Africa”. The airline has been implicated in transporting weapons and ammunition in the ongoing conflict – a charge that Ethiopian Airlines strenuously denies.
No U.S. airlines currently flies to Addis Ababa.
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.