The United Nations (UN) has suspended flights to Tigray's regional capital after an aid flight had to abort landing in Mekelle. The humanitarian situation in the region is dire with civilians facing famine-like conditions.
Ethiopia's latest aerial bombardment of Tigray's capital city on Friday injured 11 civilians and forced a UN aid flight bound for the famine-threatened region to turn around, humanitarian sources and doctors told French news agency AFP on Friday.
The incident prompted the UN to suspend its twice-weekly passenger flights to Tigray for humanitarian personnel, UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters at a press conference.
There has been an escalation of hostilities this past week, with the Ethiopian military targeting various heavy weapons facilities, munitions depots, and other installations of the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF).
A spokeswoman for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, Billene Seyoum, told AFP the air force was targeting a training centre used by the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) rebel group that was "also serving as a battle network hub by the terrorist organisation".
Abiy's government has been locked in a war against the TPLF since last November, though Tigray itself has seen little combat since late June, when the rebels seized control of much of Ethiopia's northernmost region and the military largely withdrew.
The UN flight that was forced back because of Friday's strike was carrying 11 humanitarian staff, said Gemma Connell, head of the UN's humanitarian coordination office for East Africa.
"I can confirm that the government was informed of that flight before it took off, and can also confirm that the flight was forced to turn back in midair, because of the events on the ground," Connell said.
TPLF spokesman Getachew Reda criticised the air force for putting the flight at risk.
"Our air defense units knew the UN plane was scheduled to land & it was due in large measure to their restraint it was not caught in a crossfire," Getachew said on Twitter.
Civilians flee south
The international community has voiced alarm about the attacks.
A US State Department spokesman said Wednesday that Washington "condemns the continuing escalation of violence, putting civilians in harm's way".
The air raids come amid reports of heavy fighting in Amhara, where the TPLF launched an offensive in July.
On Wednesday, Getachew claimed rebel fighters had taken control of at least two new towns in Amhara, putting the cities of Kombolcha and nearby Dessie -- where tens of thousands have sought refuge from their advance -- "within artillery range".
Much of northern Ethiopia is under a communications blackout and access for journalists is restricted, making battlefield claims difficult to verify independently.
Dessie residents on Thursday reported a heavy military presence in the area as displaced civilians from conflict-hit towns farther north continued to arrive.
Worsening humanitarian conditions
Meanwhile, the UN has once again sounded the alarm about dire humanitarian conditions in Tigray, saying Thursday that some aid groups were forced to suspend food distribution for lack of fuel.
AFP has documented starvation deaths in multiple parts of Tigray, based on internal documents from aid groups active there.
The UN said last week that the number of young children hospitalised due to severe malnutrition between February and August was double the number recorded during the same period last year.
Some 2.5 percent of screened children were diagnosed with severe malnutrition during the past week, the UN said Thursday, up from 2.3 percent the week before.
Thursday's report also noted that during the week ending October 13, only 52,000 people in Tigray received food assistance, or one percent of the 5.2 million that aid groups are targeting.
"To reach 5.2 million people with food assistance within a six-week cycle, partners are expected to assist at least 870,000 people on average per week," the report said.