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An airstrike hit a busy market in Tigray on Tuesday (June 22), leaving dozens injured and an unknown number of dead in this region of northern Ethiopia, where the conflict that has lasted for seven months has experienced in recent days a renewed intensity.
The precise toll was still unknown on Wednesday, due in particular to restricted access to the town of Togoga affected by this strike, located about thirty kilometers northwest of the regional capital Mekele.
The UN called for a “Rapid investigation of this attack” conducted the day after national elections in Ethiopia, except in Tigray in particular, where the poll was postponed indefinitely due to the conflict. A request for an investigation “Independent” supported by the United States, which “Strongly condemned” air strike, calling for a “Immediate cease-fire in Tigray”.
The testimonies of the wounded, collected by AFP at Mekele hospital where rare victims were evacuated, paint a gruesome picture. “There were many wounded and dead, we walked on them and in their blood”, says Birhan Gebrehiwet, a young woman of 20, whose house, near the market, was “Totally destroyed”. “We were buried under the walls and the roof”, she specifies.
Negash Araya, 47, claims to have “Seen from [ses] eyes the bodies of 58 dead people ». According to him, “Around 12:45 pm”, two planes dropped “Six bombs”. “It was the busiest time of the market, there were a lot of people from the surrounding villages”, he explains.
Among the victims was Tsigabu Gebretinsae’s 22-year-old son. But this mother says she didn’t have time to mourn him. Her 12-year-old daughter had her hand mutilated, she moaned by his side as the ambulance got off in Mekele.
“I lost a child. Now I can’t lose another one ”, loose this 45-year-old woman, while her daughter receives a blood infusion. “There are still a lot of people under the rubble”, she says.
AFP has not been able to confirm an independent and accurate assessment. Neither the Ethiopian military nor the regional interim administration responded to the news agency’s requests on Wednesday night.
On stretchers or grimacing in pain, arms or legs bandaged or face burnt, 25 people arrived in the early evening at Mekele hospital, joining six others – including three children aged 2, 3 and 6 – evacuated the day before .
Obstacles to rescue
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has indicated that it is working “Facilitate the medical evacuation of the wounded”, in a press release recalling that “The medical mission must be respected and protected at all times”.
According to witnesses, paramedics and doctors interviewed by AFP, soldiers prevented people from entering or leaving the Togoga area for more than 24 hours, depriving the wounded of treatment.
The Ethiopian army has been carrying out since November, with the support of troops from the neighboring Amhara region and the Eritrean army, a military operation in Tigray against the forces of the former regional authorities.
The mother of a 2-year-old girl with a stomach injury said her husband, also injured, was unable to pass an army roadblock: “We don’t know if he’s alive or dead. “ An ambulance driver also said on Wednesday that he was prevented from reaching the area. “I tried to leave Mekele four times today to go and help people, but the soldiers won’t let us pass”, did he declare.
A revival of military activity
“If the blocking of ambulances attempting to provide medical assistance to the wounded after the bombing is confirmed, this is unacceptable. Such a practice constitutes a serious violation of the Geneva Convention and of international humanitarian law ”, said the head of European diplomacy Josep Borrell.
UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Ramesh Rajasingham called Addis Ababa “To carry out a rapid and effective investigation into this attack and the subsequent acts depriving the victims of medical treatment”.
In November 2020, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent the federal army to arrest and disarm the dissident authorities in the region, which emerged from the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
This military operation turned into a conflict marked by numerous accounts of abuses against civilians (massacres, rapes, etc.). According to the UN, at least 350,000 people are there in a situation of famine, which the Ethiopian government denies.
In recent days, Tigray has experienced a resurgence in military activity, especially around a few strategic points. A resident of Adigrat reported that TPLF forces briefly entered the town on Tuesday at a crossroads 115 kilometers north of Mekele after the Ethiopian army left.
Hours later, Eritrean troops were visible in the streets. Artillery fire was also reported Wednesday evening near the town of Wukro, halfway between Adigrat and Mekele.