Ethiopia’s army launched airstrikes on the capital of the war-torn Tigray region on Monday, a dramatic escalation in the year-long conflict.The government initially dismissed the reports of the Mekele bombings as an “outright lie”, but state media later confirmed that the air force had struck targets of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
A senior official at Tigray’s largest hospital said three people died, including two children.
They were the first airstrikes on Mekele since the early stages of the war in northern Ethiopia that has killed untold numbers of people and triggered a deep humanitarian crisis.
The bombings, reported by residents, humanitarian officials and diplomats, came as Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government appeared to be pressing a new offensive against the TPLF, which dominated national politics for nearly three decades before it assumed power in 2018.
The Ethiopian Press Agency said the raids affected the media and communications equipment used by the TPLF, adding that “measures to avoid civilian casualties during the airstrikes were carried out successfully.”
Both the United Nations and the United States expressed alarm at the escalation of violence.
A strike, sources said, occurred near a cement factory on the outskirts of Mekele, the city controlled by the TPLF since it was recaptured from government forces in June.
The second hit the city center near the Planet Hotel, often used by top officials of the TPLF, the region’s former ruling party.
A government spokesman initially called the reports fabricated by the TPLF “to mislead the international community” and put pressure on Ethiopia, Africa’s second most populous country.
“There is no reason, or no plan, to attack civilians in Mekele, which is a part of Ethiopia and the home of our own citizens. This is an absolute lie, ”Legesse Tulu, head of the Government’s Communication Service, told AFP.
The Ethiopian Foreign Ministry accused the TPLF of “crying like a wolf” and trying to cover up alleged attacks against civilians in Amhara and Afar, the regions neighboring Tigray where fighting has raged.
Dr Hayelom Kebede, research director at the Ayder de Mekele Reference Hospital, told AFP that “many victims” were arriving at the facility and that three people, including two children, had died.
TPLF spokesman Getachew Reda said on Twitter that government forces were “losing a lot” and that the airstrikes were designed to inflict civilian casualties in revenge, noting that Monday was market day in Mekele.
The # AbiyAhmed ‘Air Force’ sent its bomber plane to strike civilian targets in and outside of #Mekelle. Monday is market day in #Mekelle and the intention is too palpable. While they are losing big in what they called a final offense against Tigray, they will obviously continue to lose.
– Getachew K Reda (@reda_getachew) October 18, 2021
UN chief Antonio Guterres was “deeply concerned” by the escalation of the conflict and called on all parties to avoid attacking civilians and stop fighting, his spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters.
US State Department spokesman Ned Price issued a similar request.
“We urge all parties to immediately end hostilities and the Ethiopian government and the TPLF … to enter into negotiations without preconditions towards a sustainable ceasefire.”
Since fighting first broke out in November, nearly two million people have been displaced and there have been many reports of atrocities, including massacres and mass rapes.
The war has also soured relations between Ethiopia and Western powers, including the United States, a long-time crucial ally but now threatening sanctions.
‘Breaking the siege’
The airstrikes 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, which is to the north.
Legesse said the TPLF had used heavy weaponry in Wuchale in recent days and accused the rebels of killing more than 30 civilians there.
Over the weekend, Getachew said the rebels had taken Wuchale, a claim denied by a military official in Amhara.
Getachew said the rebels would march to Addis Ababa if necessary.
“If that’s what it takes to break the siege of Tigray, why not?” he told AFP by text message.
The rebels have justified their advance into Afar and Amhara as necessary to prevent government forces from regrouping and to break up what they describe as a humanitarian siege of Tigray.
The conflict broke out in November after Abiy sent troops to Tigray to overthrow the TPLF.
The 2019 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who took over a new term just two weeks ago, said the deployment came in response to TPLF attacks on army camps.