ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — Ethiopia’s military on Thursday confirmed it was responsible for a deadly airstrike on a busy marketplace in the country’s Tigray region that locals say killed dozens of civilians, but the military insisted that only combatants were targeted.
Bodies were still being pulled from the rubble and dozens of survivors were still arriving at regional hospitals with shrapnel and blunt trauma wounds two days after the airstrike, a doctor in the regional capital, Mekele, told The Associated Press. The doctor, like others, spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.
A military spokesman, Col. Getnet Adane, told journalists that fighters supporting the Tigray region’s former leaders had assembled to celebrate Martyrs’ Day on Tuesday when the airstrike occurred.
“The Ethiopian air force uses the latest technology, so it conducted a precision strike that was successful,” he said. He didn’t comment when reached for further details.
The airstrike in the village of Togoga killed at least 51 people and left 33 missing and more than 100 wounded, a regional health official told the AP. Children were among the victims, health workers said, adding that Ethiopian forces blocked some medical teams from responding and shot at a Red Cross ambulance trying to reach the scene.
“There are a lot of people injured, but they didn’t get medical service and help because of the blockage of the road by the military,” said Dr. Kinfe Redae.
Wounded people were still being evacuated from the scene on Thursday, the International Committee of the Red Cross said, calling the transport of seriously injured to an operating center in Mekele “a matter of life and death.”
The airstrike came amid some of the fiercest fighting in Tigray since the conflict began in November as Ethiopian forces, supported by forces from neighboring Eritrea, pursue Tigray’s former leaders. The Ethiopian military spokesman denied Tigray fighters’ claims of gains in recent days, saying Ethiopian forces had been deployed to other locations for Monday’s national election.
The United States and the European Union have condemned the airstrike in Togoga that left children, including a 1-year-old baby. screaming in pain.
A “reprehensible act,” the U.S. State Department said. “Denying victims urgently needed medical care is heinous and absolutely unacceptable. We urge the Ethiopian authorities to ensure full and unhindered medical access to the victims immediately. We also call for an urgent and independent investigation.“
The U.S. also called for an immediate cease-fire in Tigray, where thousands of civilians have been killed and 350,000 people are now facing one of the world’s worst famines in years.
“At least 33,000 children in inaccessible parts of Tigray are severely malnourished and face imminent death without immediate help,” the latest United Nations humanitarian update said Thursday.
Ethiopia says aid is being delivered to most of Tigray’s 6 million people, but aid workers have said they have been repeatedly denied access to several parts of the region by soldiers.
With Ethiopia recently declaring Tigray’s former ruling party a terrorist group, concerns have been widespread among Tigrayans, aid workers and others that anyone seen as linked to Tigray fighters, including civilians, could be targeted.
Tigrayans were appalled by Ethiopia’s assertion that the airstrike was aimed only at combatants.
“It’s an insult to the people and adding salt to the wounds, you know?” said Hailu Kebede, a former Togoga resident and official with the Salsay Woyane Tigray opposition party. He described how his brother, who has a shop in the market, ran for his life while his nearby home was destroyed.
“We know the area. I grew up there. There were no combatants,” Hailu said. “The destroyed homes are those of my friends and my family.” One of his friends lost a child in the airstrike while another child had her hand amputated, he said.
The real death toll from the airstrike could be higher because some people likely took the dead home to their nearby villages and buried them without the knowledge of regional officials, Hailu said.
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