NAIROBI – Ethiopian military airstrikes hit the capital of the country’s Tigray region and killed at least three people, witnesses said Monday, returning the war abruptly to the city of Mekele after several months of peace.
The airstrikes came days after a new military offensive was launched against the Tigray forces who have been fighting Ethiopian and allied forces for nearly a year.
Mekele hasn't 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. What began as a political dispute in Africa's second-most populous country has now killed thousands of people.
The state-owned Ethiopian Press Agency, citing the air force, reported that “communication towers and equipment” were attacked and that “utmost care was made to avoid civilian casualties.”
One Mekele resident, Kindeya Gebrehiwot, a spokesman for the Tigray authorities, told The Associated Press that a market was bombed. Another resident, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, said the first airstrike 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 airstrike, which also damaged a hotel.
The Tigray region, along with the current areas of fighting in the neighboring Amhara and Afar regions, are under a communications blackout, making it challenging to verify information.
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.
The new offensive rages despite pressure from the United Nations, the United States, the European Union and other African nations for a cease-fire, talks and humanitarian access. The U.S. a month ago threatened a new round of targeted sanctions if steps toward those goals weren't taken quickly.
Instead, the warring sides have shown no sign of stopping.
“The possibility for peaceful dialogue, which the people of Tigray had waited for, has no hope,” the Tigray forces said in a statement on Sunday.
U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters they were trying to verify details of Monday's airstrikes.
“What is clear is that civilians should never be targeted. Civilian infrastructure should never be targeted. Those are basic humanitarian principles,” he said.
The fighting is reducing U.N. aid operations during a time of growing need, Dujarric said, and the absence of essential supplies such as fuel in Tigray has led several humanitarian groups including the U.N. to reduce their presence in the region in the past week. He did not say how many U.N. staffers are in Mekele; there are several hundred in Tigray and about 1,300 humanitarian workers overall.
An Ethiopian Foreign Ministry statement on Monday said it was “absurd to expect unrestricted flow of humanitarian aid to the Tigray region while the (Tigray forces are) actively attacking neighboring areas.”
The last time the Ethiopian military carried out an airstrike near Mekele 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.
Associated Press writer Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed.