64 dead in Tigray market strike claimed by Ethiopia

Authorities claimed only combatants were killed in the strike

Men use mobile phones to try to reach relatives as Red Cross ambulances are seen on stand by for authorisation to travel to Togoga, a village about 20km west of Mekele, where an alleged airstrike hit a market leaving an unknown number of casualties, from the Ayder referral hospital in Mekele, the capital of Tigray region, Ethiopia, on June 23, 2021.  / AFP / Yasuyoshi Chiba

Ethiopia’s military confirmed on Thursday that it was responsible for an air strike on a busy marketplace in the country’s Tigray region that a local health officer said killed 64 civilians.

The military insisted that only combatants were targeted in Tuesday's strike.

A spokesman, Col Getnet Adane, told journalists that fighters supporting the Tigray region’s former leaders had assembled to celebrate Martyrs’ Day  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 did not comment when asked for more details.

The air strike in the village of Togoga killed at least 64 people and left more than 180 wounded, a regional health official told AFP.

"The air strike was in the market area, so many, many people were injured," said Mulu Atsbaha, an adviser to the Tigray regional administration on maternal and child health.

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.

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 centre in the regional capital of Mekele “a matter of life and death”.

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.

The United States and the European Union condemned the air strike in Togoga.

A “reprehensible act,” the US 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 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.

Tigrayans were appalled by Ethiopia’s assertion that the air strike targeted only combatants.

Relatives of Togoga residents, a village about 20km west of Mekele, where an alleged airstrike hit a market leaving an unknown number of casualties,  wait for information as Red Cross ambulances are standing by after being denied access to the site, at the Ayder referral hospital in Mekele, the capital of Tigray region, Ethiopia, on June 23, 2021.  / AFP / Yasuyoshi Chiba

“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,” Mr 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, Mr Hailu said.

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