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Ethiopia launches new air strikes in Tigray

By Robbie Corey-Boulet with Tanya Willmer in Nairobi
Ethiopia TPLF fighters recaptured Mekele from government forces in June.  By Yasuyoshi Chiba (AFP/File)
OCT 20, 2021 LISTEN
TPLF fighters recaptured Mekele from government forces in June. By Yasuyoshi Chiba (AFP/File)

Ethiopia's military launched new air strikes on Tigray Wednesday, the second round of bombardments this week against rebel targets in the war-battered region.

The raids mark a sharp escalation in the brutal year-long conflict pitting government forces and their allies against the Tigray People's Liberation Front, the region's once dominant ruling party.

The government said it bombed weapons caches in the regional capital Mekele and the town of Agbe which lies about 80 kilometres (50 miles) to the west.

"It targeted at the facilities that TPLF have turned into arms construction and repair armaments sites," government spokesman Legesse Tulu told AFP by text message of the Mekele strike.

Dr Hayelom Kebede, research director at Mekele's Ayder Referral Hospital, said eight people had been wounded, including a pregnant woman.

"It was heavy and the jet was so close," one local resident told AFP, with witnesses reporting thick clouds of smoke rising up over the city.

The UN has voiced increasing alarm about the latest violence in northern Ethiopia, where millions need emergency aid.

UN secretary general Antonio Guterres' deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said initial information indicated that some civilians including women and children were injured in Mekele.

"We have made clear what our concerns are about the impact of these operations on civilians and the need to avoid any offensive activities that can target civilians or civilian infrastructures," he told reporters.

Tigray is the northernmost region of Ethiopia.  By Aude GENET (AFP) Tigray is the northernmost region of Ethiopia. By Aude GENET (AFP)

The conflict has killed untold numbers of people and the United Nations says two million have been displaced and hundreds of thousands plunged into famine-like conditions.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's government, barely two weeks into its new term, seems to be waging a new offensive against the TPLF, which dominated national politics for almost three decades before he took power in 2018.

William Davison, the International Crisis Group's senior analyst for Ethiopia, said the strikes "appear to be part of efforts to weaken Tigray's armed resistance," as the TPLF makes gains in the neighbouring Amhara region.

"Along with superior manpower, control of the skies is one of the few remaining areas of military advantage for the federal government."

'Surgical operations'

TPLF spokesman Getachew Reda said Wednesday's raid on Mekele hit a residential area "causing injury to civilians and harm to property".

"Abiy's reaction to his losses in the ongoing fighting is to target civilians hundreds of kms away from the battlefield," he said on Twitter.

Much of northern Ethiopia is under a communications blackout and access for journalists is restricted, making claims difficult to independently verify.

Abiy Ahmed was sworn in for a new term on October 4.  By EDUARDO SOTERAS (AFP/File) Abiy Ahmed was sworn in for a new term on October 4. By EDUARDO SOTERAS (AFP/File)

Tigray remains under a de facto blockade, with the warring parties each accusing the other of hampering the delivery of desperately needed aid.

Legesse, the government spokesman, accused the TPLF of using ordinary people as human shields.

"We confirm and assure these surgical operations have not any intended harm to civilians," he said.

On Monday, there were two aerial assaults on Mekele, the city held by the TPLF since it was recaptured from government forces in June.

Legesse had initially denied those raids but state media later confirmed the air force had hit TPLF media and communications infrastructure.

The United Nations said Monday's attacks had killed three children and wounded nine people.

'Strengthening Tigrayan resolve'

"The bombing of urban areas... reinforces the impression that Addis Ababa is willing to risk civilian lives in Tigray as part of its military efforts, something also demonstrated by the continued federal constraints on aid flows and refusal to provide electricity, banking, and telecommunications services to the region," the ICG's Davison said.

"As such, the air raids may have the effect of strengthening the Tigrayan resolve to resist, rather than weaken it."

Fighting first erupted in Africa's second most populous country last November when Abiy sent troops to Tigray to topple the TPLF after months of rising tensions.

The 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner said the move came in response to TPLF attacks on federal army camps and promised a swift victory, with troops from neighbouring Eritrea providing support.

But in a dramatic turnaround, by late June the TPLF had regrouped and retaken most of the region including Mekele.

Since then, the rebels have pushed south from Tigray into the neighbouring regions of Amhara and Afar.

The UN says up to seven million people in the three regions are now in need of food assistance and other emergency support.

The conflict has seen relations between Ethiopia and the West deteriorate, with its crucial ally Washington calling for sanctions if the warring parties do not commit to a negotiated settlement.

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