Ethiopian military says only combatants hit in Tigray airstrike

People gather as victims arrive at Ayder Referral Hospital, in Mekelle, after an airstrike in Togoga, Ethiopia's Tigray region June 22, 2021. [Reuters]

Only combatants, not civilians, were struck in an airstrike this week in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, the country’s military spokesman said on Thursday.

Colonel Getnet Adane told Reuters in an interview in Addis Ababa that the combatants in the town of Togoga were dressed in civilian clothes.

An airstrike killed at least 43 people in the town on Tuesday, a medical official told Reuters. The strike took place after residents said new fighting had flared in recent days north of the regional capital Mekelle.

A resident of the town told Reuters on Wednesday that the airstrike a day earlier had hit a market in the town west of Mekelle at around 1 p.m. That resident also said that her 2-year-old daughter had been injured in the attack.

The military spokesman said the combatants were not inside the market but had gathered in the town to commemorate the anniversary of the bombing of another town in Tigray, Hawzen, in 1988. That attack, by Ethiopia’s then-ruling Communist leaders, killed hundreds of people and is widely commemorated in Tigray.

The spokesman said he did not have the death toll from the strike but that it would come soon.

The military has been battling forces loyal to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the region’s former ruling party, since November. Fighting has displaced 2 million people, and the United Nations has warned of a possible famine.

Asked about children injured in Tuesday’s attack, the spokesman said the TPLF uses propaganda and is known for faking injuries. He also said that doctors quoted by the media are not “real doctors”.

The remarks were the first acknowledgement by the military of the airstrike, which came after residents said new fighting had flared in recent days north of Tigray’s regional capital Mekelle.

Previously, Getnet, the military spokesman, had declined to confirm or deny the incident, saying airstrikes were a common military tactic and that government forces do not target civilians.

The airstrike took place as Ethiopian officials counted ballots from national and regional parliamentary elections held this week in seven of the nation’s 10 regions.

No voting was held in Tigray, and security concerns and problems with ballot papers also delayed voting in two other regions.

BBC  has reported a medical doctor at Aider hospital saying at least 60 people were killed and more than 40 were injured. There are fears the numbers will increase further.

“We are treating dozens of people, including a two-year-old child left injured by the airstrike,” a doctor told BBC.

Medical personnel told Reuters the Ethiopian military blocked them from reaching the site of the attack to help others left behind.

A 16-year-old boy who spoke to BBC from the hospital claimed he was struck in the hand by shrapnel then he saw several people thrown on the ground. He said that the airstrike killed a man he knew.

Ethiopia's army said the strikes were against military targets.

"We never carried out an airstrike on the marketplace. How is this possible? The army is capable of accurately hitting its targets. We conducted airstrikes, but only on certain targets," a spokeswoman said.