At least 55 people were killed and more than 100 injured in an Ethiopian air strike earlier this week on a market in the country's Tigray province. Locals in the war-torn region said the strike killed dozens of civilians, but the Ethiopian 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 air strike, according to health officials in the regional capital, Mekele.
Ethiopia’s military on Thursday confirmed it was responsible for the deadly air strike in the village of Togoga, but insisted that only combatants were targeted.
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 air strike 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 asked for further details.
The air strike came amid some of the fiercest fighting in Tigray since the conflict began in November as Ethiopian forces, supported by forces from neighbouring 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.
US slams ‘reprehensible act’
The US and the EU Union have condemned the air strike that left children, including a one-year-old baby, screaming in pain, with the US State Department calling the attack a “reprehensible act". The UN has called for an urgent investigation into the strike.
“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 US also called for an immediate ceasefire 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.
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 air strike while another child had her hand amputated, he said.
The real death toll from the air strike 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.
The attack came as vote counting was under way following Monday's national elections in Ethiopia. However, the conflict in Tigray meant no vote was held there, and the region has seen an upsurge in fighting in recent days.
(FRANCE 24 with AP and AFP)