The Ethiopian government launched airstrikes on the capital of the troubled Tigray region on Monday, witnesses and state media confirmed.
The rebel group Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) claimed three civilians were killed in the attack on a market in Mekelle.
However, there was no mention of any fatalities in a report by the state-run Ethiopian Press Agency, which said the airstrikes targeted a TPLF communication facility “with the utmost precision to prevent civilian casualties.”
Other local news outlets said a busy Mekelle market, located next to a hotel that housed international aid workers, was hit in the air raid.
Getachew Reda, a senior TPLF official, accused the Ethiopian government of targeting innocent civilians in its bid to wrest control of territory taken by the TPLF.
“[Prime Minister] Abiy Ahmed’s ‘Air Force’ sent its bomber jet to attack civilian targets in and outside Mekelle. Monday is market day in Mekelle and the intention is all too palpable,” he said on Twitter.
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“While they are losing big in what they dubbed a final offensive against Tigray, they will obviously continue to target civilians in a desperate move to exact revenge on the people of Tigray.”
Getachew, a former Ethiopian communications minister, alleged that one of the targets in Monday’s strikes was “the Planet Hotel where a dozen or so humanitarian agencies used to have their employees.”
“Our people won’t be cowed into submission by a desperate move by a desperate regime teetering on the brink of collapse,” he asserted.
A doctor in Mekelle, who spoke to Anadolu Agency on the condition of anonymity, also confirmed the attack.
“There were a lot of people shopping [at the market], people have shared photos of the destruction on social media too. Over a dozen people were injured but not all were seriously hurt,” he said.
Other witnesses told Anadolu Agency that the targeted area was littered with debris and there were bloodstains splattered on walls and pavements.
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Human wave warfare
The Ethiopian government accused the TPLF of putting civilians on the frontline of the Tigray conflict by relying on “human wave” tactics.
A spokesman warned that the government would be forced to adopt a similar strategy against the rebels.
“TPLF forces have been deploying human waves to fight their war … and human waves can be defeated by human waves, though primitive,” Legesse Tulu, head of Ethiopia’s Government Communication Service, said at a news conference.
He said the TPLF sends “a swarm of civilians with light weapons and sickles … followed by groups with medium weapons and trailed by mechanized forces.”
Legesse admitted that the rebels have captured more areas in Amhara’s South Wollo region, including the historic Wuchale city, and are now eyeing the commercial towns of Dessie and Kombolcha.
A resident of Dessie, which is some 30 kilometers (19 miles) from Wuchale, told Anadolu Agency that the town’s population is confused and fearful.
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“We were expecting the army to liberate our town, but here we are with the rebels at our doorstep,” said the resident, requesting anonymity.
“We don’t know what is really happening,” she said, calling for swift government action and warning that “Dessie is already heaving with the burden of displaced people.”
Since fighting started last November, the Tigray conflict has internally displaced more than 2 million people in Ethiopia, while tens of thousands more have fled to neighboring Sudan.