Ethiopia’s military launched deadly air strikes on the Tigrayan capital Mekele on Monday, several sources said, but the government dismissed the reports as an “absolute lie”.
A hospital official in Mekele said three people were killed, including two children, in the first air raids reported over the northern city since the early stages of the almost year-long war in northern Ethiopia.
The strikes were reported inside and outside Mekele by residents, humanitarian officials and diplomats and came as the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed appeared to be pressing a new offensive against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front.
The sources said the first raid occurred in the morning near a cement factory on the outskirts of Mekele, the regional capital held by the TPLF since it was recaptured from government forces in June.
The second took place around midday in the city centre near the Planet Hotel, often used by top officials from the TPLF, the region’s former ruling party and the target of a government military operation since November 2020.
But a government spokesman dismissed reports of bombing raids as lies concocted by the TPLF “to misguide the international community” and apply pressure on Ethiopia.
“There is no reason, or no plan, to strike civilians in Mekele, which is a part of Ethiopia, and home to our own citizens. This is absolute lie,” Legesse Tulu, head of the Government Communication Service, told AFP.
– ‘Crying wolf’ –
But an official at Tigray’s biggest hospital said three people — including two children — were killed in the strikes.
“So far, many casualties are coming to Ayder. The deaths have reached three,” Dr Hayelom Kebede, research director at Ayder Referral Hospital in Mekele, told AFP.
The TPLF said government forces were “losing big” and the aerial assaults were designed to inflict civilian casualties as revenge.
“Monday is market day in Mekelle & the intention is all too palpable,” TPLF spokesman Getachew Reda said on Twitter.
Ethiopia’s foreign ministry accused the TPLF of trying to cover up alleged attacks on civilians in Amhara and Afar, the neighbouring regions of Tigray where the fighting has spread.
“The TPLF has been crying wolf in the past week, calling on the international community to save it from the ‘planned’ government attack against it,” the ministry said in a statement.
Legesse said the TPLF had used heavy weaponry in an assault in recent days on Wuchale, a town in Amhara.
“They attacked with artillery. They killed more than 30 civilians there, and they displaced many others, and damaged public investments,” he said, adding a town in Afar called Chifra was also struck.
– ‘Break the siege’ –
The tit-for-tat accusations came as the TPLF appeared to move south of Tigray toward Dessie, a city in Amhara where tens of thousands have sought refuge from the rebel advance since July.
One resident told AFP that Dessie was “flooded” with displaced civilians arriving from Wuchale, another town to the north.
At the weekend, Getachew said rebel forces had taken Wuchale — a claim denied by a military official in Amhara.
Getachew said the rebels would march all the way to Addis Ababa if necessary.
“If that’s what it takes to break the siege on Tigray, why not?” he told AFP in a text message.
The rebels have justified their push into Afar and Amhara as necessary to prevent government forces from regrouping and to break what it describes as a humanitarian siege of Tigray, where the UN estimates that hundreds of thousands of people face famine-like conditions.
The conflict erupted last November in Ethiopia’s northernmost Tigray region after Abiy sent troops to topple the TPLF, which dominated national politics before he took office in 2018.
The 2019 Nobel Peace laureate — who was sworn into a new term in office two weeks ago — said the deployment came in response to TPLF attacks on army camps.
The war has soured relations between Ethiopia and Western powers, including the United States, long a crucial ally.