Ethiopia’s military launched new airstrikes in Tigray on Wednesday, the second round of shelling this week against rebel targets in the war-torn region.
The raids mark a sharp escalation in the brutal year-long conflict that pits government forces and their allies against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the once dominant ruling party in the region.
The international community has expressed alarm at the new attacks in the north, where fighting since November has killed thousands of people and left millions in need of emergency assistance.
The government said it bombed TPLF weapons depots in the regional capital, Mekele, and in the city of Agbe, which lies about 50 miles (80 kilometers) to the west, after two raids in Mekele on Monday.
“He targeted the facilities that the TPLF has converted into weapons repair and construction sites,” government spokesman Legesse Tulu said of the latest Mekele attack.
Dr Hayelom Kebede, research director at Ayder de Mekele Reference Hospital, said eight people were injured, including a pregnant woman.
UN spokesman Farhan Haq told reporters that initial information indicated that some civilians, including women and children, were injured.
“It was heavy and the plane was so close,” a local resident told AFP, with witnesses reporting thick clouds of smoke rising over the city.
The United States, which has threatened sanctions if the parties to the conflict do not reach a negotiated agreement, issued a strong statement denouncing the violence.
“We have seen credible reports of attacks in and around Mekele. The United States condemns the continuing escalation of violence, which puts civilians at risk,” tweeted State Department spokesman Ned Price.
We have seen credible reports of attacks in and around Mekelle. The United States condemns the continuing escalation of violence, which puts the civilian population in danger. The Ethiopian government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front must end hostilities and begin talks now.
– Ned Price (@StateDeptSpox) October 20, 2021
The conflict has created a deep humanitarian crisis and the United Nations says that around two million people have been displaced and hundreds of thousands have fallen into famine conditions.
The government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, just two weeks into his new term, appears to be waging a new offensive against the TPLF, which dominated national politics for nearly three decades before it took power in 2018.
William Davison, International Crisis Group senior analyst for Ethiopia, said the attacks “appear to be part of efforts to weaken the armed resistance of Tigray” as the TPLF makes progress in the neighboring Amhara region.
“Along with a superior workforce, control of the skies is one of the few remaining areas of military advantage for the federal government.”
TPLF spokesman Getachew Reda said Wednesday’s raid in Mekele hit a residential area “causing injury to civilians and damage to property.”
“Abiy’s reaction to his losses in the ongoing fighting is to target civilians hundreds of kilometers from the battlefield,” he said on Twitter.
He later claimed that TPLF fighters had taken control of at least two villages in Amhara, putting the towns of Kombolcha and nearby Dessie, where tens of thousands have sought refuge from the rebel advance since July, “within reach of artillery.” .
Much of northern Ethiopia is blocked from communications and access for journalists is restricted, making independent verification of claims on the battlefield difficult.
Tigray remains under a de facto blockade, with the warring parties accusing each other of obstructing the delivery of desperately needed aid.
Legesse, the government spokesman, denounced that the TPLF was using ordinary people as human shields.
“We confirm and ensure that these surgical operations do not cause any intentional harm to civilians,” he said.
On Monday, there were two air raids in and around Mekele, the city held by the TPLF since it was recaptured from government forces in June.
The United Nations said those attacks killed three children and injured nine people.
‘Strengthening Tigrayan’s resolve’
“The bombing of urban areas … reinforces the impression that Addis Ababa is willing to risk civilian lives in Tigray as part of its military efforts, something that is also demonstrated by continued federal restrictions on aid flows and the refusal to provide electricity, banking and telecommunications services to the region, “said Davison of the ICG.
“As such, air strikes can have the effect of strengthening Tigrayan’s determination to resist, rather than weakening it.”
Clashes first broke out in Africa’s second most populous country last November when Abiy sent troops to Tigray to overthrow the TPLF after months of mounting tensions.
The 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner said the move came in response to TPLF attacks on federal army camps and promised a quick victory.
But in a dramatic change, the TPLF retaken most of the region, including Mekele, in late June and has since moved south toward Amhara and Afar.
The UN says that up to seven million people in the three regions now need food assistance and other emergency support.