Ethiopia’s military on Thursday confirmed it was responsible for a deadly airstrike on a busy marketplace in the country’s Tigray region that locals say killed dozens of civilians, but the military insisted that only combatants were targeted.
A 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 airstrike 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 reached for further details.
The airstrike in the village of Togoga killed at least 51 people and left 33 missing and more than 100 wounded, a regional health official told The Associated Press. Children were among the victims, other health workers said, adding that Ethiopian forces blocked some medical teams from responding and shot at a Red Cross ambulance trying to reach the scene. All spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.
“There are a lot of people injured, but they didn’t get medical service and help because of the blockage of the road by the military,” said Dr. Kinfe Redae.
Wounded people were still being evacuated from the scene on Thursday, the International Committee of the Red Cross said, calling the transport of seriously injured to an operating center in the regional capital of Mekele “a matter of life and death.”
The airstrike came amid some of the fiercest fighting in Tigray since the conflict began in November as Ethiopian forces, supported by forces from neighboring 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.
The United States and the European Union have condemned the airstrike in Togoga that left children, including a 1-year-old baby. screaming in pain.
A “reprehensible act,” the U.S. State Department said. “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 U.S. also called for an immediate cease-fire 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.
Tigrayans were appalled by Ethiopia’s assertion that the airstrike targeted only 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 airstrike while another child had her hand amputated, he said.
The real death toll from the airstrike 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.