Ethiopian military air raids have hit the capital of the Tigray region and killed at least three people, witnesses said, returning the war abruptly to Mekelle after several months of peace.
Ethiopia’s government initially dismissed the reports on Monday, but the state media later confirmed the air force had struck the targets of the region’s ruling party Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
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The Ethiopian Press Agency said the raids hit media and communications equipment used by the TPLF, adding that “measures to prevent civilian casualties during the air strikes were done successfully”.
UN chief Antonio Guterres was “deeply concerned” about the escalation of the conflict and called for all sides to avoid targeting civilians and to stop fighting, his spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters.
US State Department spokesman Ned Price issued a similar entreaty.
“We urge all parties to end hostilities immediately and for the Ethiopian government and the TPLF … to enter into negotiations without preconditions toward a sustainable ceasefire.”
The raids, confirmed by two humanitarian workers, came days after a new military offensive was launched against the Tigray forces who have fought Ethiopian and allied forces for nearly a year.
Kindeya Gebrehiwot, a spokesman for the Tigray authorities who lives in Mekelle, told The Associated Press a market was bombed on a busy shopping day and many people were wounded.
Another resident, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, said the first air strike occurred just outside the city and three children from the same family were killed. The resident said at least seven people were wounded in the second attack, which also badly damaged a hotel.
Mekelle has not seen fighting since late June, when the Tigray forces retook much of the region and Ethiopian troops withdrew.
Since then, Ethiopia’s federal government has called all able citizens to crush the Tigray fighters who dominated the national government for 27 years before being sidelined by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.
Tigrai TV – controlled by TPLF – said the attack on the city of Mekelle was carried out by “Abiy Ahmed”.
A government spokesman initially denied air strikes were launched on the regional capital.
“There is no reason, or no plan, to strike civilians in Mekelle, which is a part of Ethiopia, and home to our own citizens. This is an absolute lie,” Legesse Tulu, head of the government communication service, told AFP news agency.
“It is a total and absolute lie of the TPLF junta, just to misguide the international community, to create pressure on the Ethiopian state.”
The TPLF said the aerial assaults were designed to inflict civilian casualties.
“Monday is market day in Mekelle & the intention is all too palpable,” TPLF spokesman Getachew Reda said on Twitter.
The last time the Ethiopian military carried out an air strike near Mekelle was in June, when a market in Togoga outside the city was hit and at least 64 civilians were killed. Soldiers for hours blocked medical teams from responding to victims.
Conflict erupted between the TPLF and the Ethiopian central government last November.
Government forces swiftly drove the TPLF from Tigray’s cities and towns, but the rebels retook most of the region, including its capital, by late June.
William Davison from the International Crisis Group said pressure from the African Union is key to bringing the warring factions to the negotiating table to end the deadly conflict.
He noted the African Union’s new envoy – Olusegun Obasanjo, Nigeria’s former president – is leading an investigation into war crimes committed during the fighting and is a key figure in mediation efforts.
“What we have is a gigantic political problem that is driving this conflict. I think everyone is looking to the African Union envoy to really impress on these Ethiopian parties that unless they change track here then the country is just going to be on the path to increased deterioration,” Davison told Al Jazeera.
In July, the TPLF pushed into the neighbouring Afar and Amhara regions, a move it said was intended to prevent government forces from regrouping and to break what it describes as a humanitarian siege of Tigray, where the UN estimates hundreds of thousands face famine-like conditions.
Last month, Abiy’s office said the TPLF had “suffered great losses” and been “routed” from Afar, while the TPLF said it had withdrawn troops from the region to focus on other fronts, including in Amhara.
Last week, TPLF spokesman Getachew told Reuters news agency the Ethiopian military and allies from the Amhara region were fighting the Tigrayan forces on several fronts, in both the Amhara and Afar.
Pleas from the United Nations, the United States, the European Union, and African nations for the warring sides to stop the fighting have failed, even as the US threatened new sanctions targeting individuals in Africa’s second most populous nation.
The war has killed thousands of people and forced more than two million to flee their homes.
There have been myriad reports of massacres and atrocities, including rape and extrajudicial killings, and hundreds of thousands of people suffering famine.
The Tigray forces have said they are trying to pressure Ethiopia’s government to lift a deadly blockade imposed on the Tigray region since the dramatic turn in the war in June.
But witnesses in the Amhara region have alleged door-to-door killings and other atrocities against civilians by the Tigray fighters — an echo of the atrocities that Tigrayans reported at the hands of Ethiopian and allied forces earlier in the war.
Ethiopia’s foreign ministry accused the TPLF of “crying wolf” over Monday’s alleged air strikes, and said the rebels had themselves “launched widescale unwarranted attacks against civilians”.
“The government of Ethiopia is deeply dismayed by the reticence of the international community to condemn the perpetuated atrocities of the TPLF,” it said in a statement posted on Twitter.
It also again accused the TPLF of hindering humanitarian aid supplies to Tigray despite famine-like conditions.