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Dozens Killed in Market Airstrike in Ethiopia

Simon Marks and Abdi Latif Dahir | New York Time

The attack hit a busy market in Tigray, where there has been fierce fighting as Ethiopian forces pursue the region’s former leaders.

Family members wait outside Ayder Hospital in Mekelle [Yasuyoshi Chiba/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images]

Dozens of people were killed after an airstrike hit a busy market in northern Ethiopia on Tuesday, according to three doctors and a United Nations official, as fighting renewed in the restive Tigray region and vote counting got underway after parliamentary elections.

At least 80 people were killed and 43 others wounded in Togoga town, roughly 15 miles west of the Tigray capital, Mekelle, according to an official government report shared by a United Nations official.

On Wednesday, the U.N. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, also said several ambulances operated by the Ethiopian Red Cross had been denied access to the scene of the bombing by troops in Mekelle. A spokeswoman for the International Committee for the Red Cross confirmed an “ongoing operation” at the scene of the bombing but declined to comment further.

A spokeswoman for Ethiopia’s prime minister referred questions to the military. A spokesman with Ethiopia’s military could not immediately be reached for comment.

Separately, a doctor working at the emergency ward at Ayder Hospital in Mekelle confirmed that 30 people had been confirmed dead as of Wednesday afternoon. At least 8 injured people, including both women and children, arrived at the hospital with orthopedic and burn wounds.

The doctor, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of retribution, said the hospital had prepared at least 20 ambulances to depart for Togoga town, but that military officers stopped them from leaving the hospital compound.

“They are not allowed to leave the hospital,” the doctor said in a phone interview on Wednesday. “The ambulances are ready, and we’re still negotiating.”

Another doctor later on Wednesday said that a handful of ambulances had managed to leave Mekelle after persuading troops at certain checkpoints and using different roads to reach the area.

The airstrike hit a day after Africa’s second-most-populous nation went to the polls in an election beset by logistical challenges, opposition boycott, ethnic violence and the war in Tigray.

The elections, which were delayed last year because of the coronavirus pandemic, was seen as a crucial test for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed whose rise to power in 2018 was lauded both at home and abroad. Initially, Mr. Abiy freed journalists and political prisoners, promised to open up key sectors of the economy and made peace with longtime foe Eritrea — a move that led to his receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019.

But the war he ordered in Tigray last November tarnished Mr. Abiy’s reputation. The fighting in the northern region has killed thousands of people, displaced more than 2 million people and pushed the region into the throes of famine — the worst in any country since a 2011 famine gripped neighboring Somalia, according to a senior United Nations official.

Government forces, along with allied Eritrean forces, have also been accused of ethnic cleansing, massacres and sexual assault in the ongoing conflict — accusations that could amount to war crimes. Mr. Abiy’s administration denies those accusations.

Fighting in Tigray has escalated in recent days, as fighters belonging to the rebel Tigray Defense Forces scale up their operations, officials said.

Getachew Reda, an executive member of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the party that previously governed the region before federal forces invaded, said in an interview late on Monday that Tigray forces targeted four divisions of the Ethiopian Army. He also claimed that Ethiopian troops and their allies had “abandoned many towns and cities.”

United Nations documents also confirm an escalation of violence in recent days. Throughout the course of last week, U.N. officials reported large-scale troop movements in northwestern and central Tigray, according to a confidential U.N. security document seen by The New York Times.

On Tuesday, U.N. officials also received reports that rebel Tigrayan forces had taken control of the strategic town of Adigrat. It was not immediately clear whether rebels continued to hold the city.

Last month, the United States announced visa restrictions on all people involved in the Tigray conflict — including current or former Ethiopian or Eritrean government officials, ethnic Amhara militias or Tigrayan rebels.

Ethiopia’s foreign ministry lashed out at the restrictions, saying it “will be forced to reassess its relations with the United States, which might have implications beyond our bilateral relationship.”

“This latest atrocity against civilians raises the stakes further in Tigray,” said William Davison, senior Ethiopia analyst with the International Crisis Group.

With Mr. Abiy and the ruling Prosperity Party set for a win, Mr. Davison said the prime minister “will have to decide whether to use the mandate to prioritize preventing mass starvation in Tigray, or whether he doubles down on a war that looks unwinnable and is certain to lead to more mass civilian suffering.”

© Simon Marks and Abdi Latif Dahir for the New York Times, 2021


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