At least 64 people were killed and 180 were injured in an air strike on a market in Ethiopia’s war-torn northern Tigray region, a local health officer said Thursday, as the army denied targeting civilians.
Details of the bloody attack on Togoga town, 30 kilometres (18 miles) northwest of the regional capital Mekele, on Tuesday were slow to emerge partly because soldiers initially blocked emergency workers from accessing the area.
By Thursday, hospitals in Mekele were treating at least 73 people, including young children.
Victims at the hospital suffered shrapnel wounds and burns, and in some cases doctors were forced to perform amputations to save lives.
– Rebels dressed as civilians –
The Ethiopian military admitted carrying out the attack but said it targeted rebel fighters, not civilians.
The health officer told AFP at least 64 people had died.
“The air strike was in the market area, so many, many people were injured,” said Mulu Atsbaha, an advisor to the Tigray regional administration on maternal and child health.
He said the toll had been collated from residents of Togoga and “confirmed with local leaders”.
Survivors spoke of huge devastation as aerial explosions tore through the busy market around 1 pm, killing and injuring dozens, reducing nearby homes to rubble and burying people under the ruins.
But Ethiopia’s military spokesman said rebel fighters dressed in civilian clothes, gathered in Togoga to celebrate “Martyr Day”, were attacked.
“We do not accept that this operation targeted civilians,” Colonel Getnet Adane told AFP.
“It is a clear fact that both the remnants of the TPLF and its militia dress in civilian clothes,” he said, referring to the renegade former regional leadership.
Genet also denied the army targeted a market, adding that while it was market day on Tuesday, “in Ethiopia, people go to the markets in the morning, and by the afternoon they are usually deserted.”
Gebregiorgies Gebrehaweria, who was admitted to hospital in Mekele with a leg injury, said: “I didn’t hear anything until the jet passed overhead.”
“Then suddenly there was an explosion, and shrapnel went everywhere,” the 23-year-old said. “Two of my friends were killed. There were bodies everywhere lying on the ground, I don’t know how many.”
The attack came as vote counting was under way following Monday’s national elections in Ethiopia.
No vote was held in Tigray because of the conflict, and the region has seen an upsurge in fighting and rebel advances in recent days.
They included the brief occupation of the key town of Adigrat in the far north, and Wukro, further south nearer Mekele, residents told AFP, while heavy shelling was reported to the north of the regional capital on Thursday morning.
Flights in and out of Mekele were disrupted for a second day Thursday.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent troops to Tigray in November to oust the dissident regional leadership, promising a swift victory.
But nearly eight months later, fighting continues, which has triggered a humanitarian crisis with the UN warning 350,000 people are on the brink of famine.
– International outrage –
The strike has provoked international outrage, with the United States calling it a “reprehensible act”.
The European Union said the blocking of ambulances from reaching the scene would be a grave violation of international law, while the United Nations called for an urgent investigation into the strike.
Ethiopia’s foreign ministry spokesman Dina Mufti rejected the criticism, accusing the rebels of using human shields to draw attacks.
“The Ethiopian government does not target civilians. It is only moving to pick up people wanted by the law,” he told reporters on Thursday.
Dina complained that international attention was focused on Tuesday’s deadly attack, rather than Monday’s polls, saying foreign powers “didn’t care to give statements on this historical election”.
Timeline of Ethiopia’s Tigray conflict
Paris (AFP) June 24, 2021 – As at least 64 people die in an airstrike on a busy market in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region, this is a timeline of the ongoing crisis in Africa’s second most populous country.
– Troops enter –
Fighting begins on November 4, 2020 when Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed orders a military response to what he calls a “traitorous” attack on federal army camps in Tigray.
He blames the attack on the regional ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which dominated Ethiopian national politics for nearly three decades before Abiy took office in 2018.
The TPLF denies responsibility and says the reported attack is a pretext for an “invasion”.
Two days later, with fighting intensifying, Abiy sacks the head of the military, whose top brass includes many battle-hardened Tigrayans.
On November 9 Ethiopia carries out more air strikes in Tigray with Abiy saying the operation will be over “soon”.
– Fleeing to Sudan –
Tens of thousands of refugees flee to neighbouring Sudan as the African Union follows the United Nations in demanding an end to the fighting.
As the refugee flow swells tensions mount between the two countries, whose frontier is disputed.
– ‘War crimes’ –
After 10 days’ fighting, the UN warns of possible war crimes in Tigray.
Neighbouring Eritrea — with which Abiy signed a peace deal in 2018 that helped him win him the Nobel Prize Prize — sends troops into Tigray to help Abiy although their presence is denied by Addis Ababa.
– Capital falls –
Two weeks later, having rejected peace talks, Abiy says government tanks are advancing on Tigray’s capital Mekele.
The city comes under heavy shelling on November 28 before Abiy announces that military operations in Tigray are “completed”.
– ‘Ethnic cleansing’ –
In February 2021 Amnesty International says Eritrean soldiers killed “hundreds of civilians” in November in the holy city of Axum in Tigray.
The following month AFP documents another massacre by the troops in Dengolat.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken later urges Eritrea to withdraw and describes violence in western Tigray as “ethnic cleansing”.
– Atrocities admitted –
For months Ethiopia and Eritrea flatly deny the involvement of Eritrean forces in the conflict.
But on March 23 Abiy admits that Eritrean troops had crossed the border into Tigray.
He also suggests they may have been involved in atrocities against civilians.
The next day the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission says Eritrean soldiers massacred over 100 civilians in Axum in November.
– Withdrawal? –
After admitting Eritrea’s role, Abiy flies to its capital Asmara to meet with Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki.
During the visit Abiy says Eritrea has agreed to pull its forces out.
Just over a week later Ethiopia says Eritrean troops have “started to evacuate” Tigray but on April 15 the UN says there is no evidence of withdrawal.
– ‘Humanitarian disaster’ –
As international outrage mounts, AFP obtains government documents showing that Eritrean troops are looting and blocking food aid.
US President Joe Biden in late May calls for a ceasefire and declares that human rights abuses “must end”.
In June the World Food Programme says four million people face a food crisis in Tigray, including 350,000 risking famine.
– UN ‘deeply disturbed’ –
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet says on June 21 she is “deeply disturbed” by reports of “serious violations” in Tigray and says she has “credible reports” that Eritrean soldiers are still operating in the region.
Elections are held across much of Ethiopia that day but there are no polls in Tigray because of the conflict.
– Bloody market airstrike –
At least 64 people are killed on Tuesday and 180 injured in an Ethiopian airstrike on a market in Togoga, according to a toll released on Thursday.
The attack was aimed at rebel fighters, Ethiopia’s military insist.