State media in Ethiopia has confirmed that the military launched air strikes on the capital of the northern Tigray region, a dramatic escalation in the year-long conflict. Both the United Nations and the United States have voiced alarm.
The government initially dismissed reports about the bombardments on Mekele on Monday as an "absolute lie" but state media later confirmed the air force had struck Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) targets.
They were the first air raids on Mekele since the early stages of the war in northern Ethiopia that has killed untold numbers of people and triggered a humanitarian crisis.
Dr Hayelom Kebede, research director at Mekele's Ayder Referral Hospital, told AFP that "many casualties" were coming to the facility and that three people -- including two children -- had been killed.
The bombardments -- reported by residents, humanitarian officials and diplomats -- came as Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's government appeared to be pressing a new offensive against the TPLF, which dominated national politics for almost three decades before he took power in 2018.
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".
Other strikes reportedly hit a cement factory, and a hotel used by officials from the TPLF.
A government spokesman initially branded the reports as lies concocted by the TPLF "to misguide the international community" and apply pressure on Ethiopia, the second most populous country in Africa.
"There is no reason, or no plan, to strike civilians in Mekele, which is a part of Ethiopia, and home to our own citizens. This is absolute lie," Legesse Tulu, head of the Government Communication Service, told AFP.
Ethiopia's foreign ministry accused the TPLF of "crying wolf" and trying to cover up alleged attacks on civilians in Amhara and Afar, the regions neighbouring Tigray where the fighting has spread.
TPLF spokesman Getachew Reda said on Twitter that government forces were "losing big" and the aerial assaults were designed to inflict civilian casualties as revenge, noting that Monday was market day in Mekele.
International relations sour
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."
Since the fighting first erupted in November, nearly two million people have been displaced, and there have been many reports of atrocities including massacres and mass rape.
The conflict began after Abiy sent troops to Tigray to topple the TPLF, who he accused of attacking army camps.
The war has also soured relations between Ethiopia and Western powers, including the United States, long a crucial ally but which has now threatened sanctions.
Rebels on the move
The air strikes came as the TPLF appeared to move south of Tigray towards Dessie, a city in Amhara where tens of thousands have sought refuge from the rebel advance since July.
One resident told AFP that Dessie was "flooded" with displaced civilians arriving from Wuchale, which lies to the north.
Legesse said the TPLF had in recent days used heavy weaponry on Wuchale, and accused the rebels of killing more than 30 civilians there.
At the weekend, Getachew said rebels had taken Wuchale -- a claim denied by a military official in Amhara.
The rebels have justified their push into Afar and Amhara as necessary to prevent government forces from regrouping and to break what it describes as a humanitarian siege of Tigray.