Ethiopia says it targeted combatants, not civilians in Tigray

Ethiopia’s military has rejected accounts that dozens of civilians were killed in an air raid in the country’s embattled Tigray region, saying its forces had only struck rebels.

Local residents and medics quoted by multiple news outlets said this week dozens of innocent people were killed in the aerial attack on a busy market in the town of Togoga on Tuesday.

Speaking to journalists on Thursday, army spokesman Colonel Getnet Adane said the operation “dismantled” armed forces loyal to the northern region’s former governing party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).

“We do not accept that this operation targeted civilians,” he said, cautioning that the rebels were known to wear civilian clothes.

Reporting from the capital, Addis Ababa, Al Jazeera’s Mohamed Adow quoted Getnet as saying that the TPLF fighters had gathered to commemorate Martyrs’ Day when the air raid occurred.

“He said they had intelligence and attacked a ceremony which was attended by many fighters who were commemorating the massacre that happened in 1988 which was carried out by the Derg regime at the time against Tigray rebels,” Adow said.

Survivors and health workers, however, described aerial explosions striking the marketplace at the peak of trading, killing and wounding dozens, including children. A local health official cited by AFP news agency put the death toll to at least 64, with 180 wounded, while medics told news agencies that the Ethiopian military was blocking ambulances from reaching the scene.

‘Deeply disturbed’

The remarks were the first acknowledgement by the military of the air raid, which came after residents said new fighting had flared in recent days north of Tigray’s regional capital, Mekelle.

The UN has called for an urgent investigation into the attack and said it was “deeply disturbed” by reports the army had blocked evacuations.

“Attacks directed against civilians and indiscriminate attacks are prohibited,” said Ramesh Rajasingham, acting assistant secretary-general for humanitarian affairs.

The United States also said it was “gravely concerned” by the reported deaths and called for an urgent investigation.

“We strongly condemn this reprehensible act,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said if confirmed, the blocking of ambulances could amount to a violation of international law.

This bombing “adds to the appalling series of violations of international humanitarian law and human rights” in Tigray, he said.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered a ground and air military operation in Tigray in early November 2020, accusing the TPLF of orchestrating attacks on federal army camps.

On Monday, Abiy denied there is hunger in Tigray, telling the BBC that “there is a problem and the government is capable of fixing that”.

Alex de Waal, executive director of the World Peace Foundation, warned the humanitarian situation in Tigray has continued to deteriorate and the international community cannot afford to wait to take action

The reality on the ground indisputably is that famine exists,” he told Al Jazeera. “The government of Ethiopia and Eritrea, between them, have been trying systematically to start to break Tigray into submission. And that is what has created the famine, and they appear determined to continue with that policy,” he said.

In recent days, following Monday’s elections, there were reports of rebel advances in Tigray. They included the brief occupation of the key town of Adigrat in the far north, and Wukro, further south nearer Mekelle, residents told AFP.

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