Military spokesman denies it was behind attack on a busy market in Tigray, but admitted attacking rebels in restive region.
Ethiopia’s military has denied it carried out air strike on a busy market in Tigray, which left dozens of people dead, but it acknowledged targeting rebel fighters “in civilian clothes” in the restive region.
“We do not accept that this operation targeted civilians,” Colonel Getnet Adane, Ethiopian National Defense Force spokesman, told Reuters news agency, adding that the combatants in the town of Togoga were dressed in civilian clothes.
At least 43 people were killed in the air raid on a busy market on Tuesday, according to medics.
A resident of the town told Reuters on Wednesday that the air strike a day earlier had hit a market in the town west of Mekelle. That resident also said that her two-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 Ethiopian 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 two 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 air strike, 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 air strikes were a common military tactic and that government forces do not target civilians.
The UN said it was “deeply disturbed” by reports the army had blocked evacuations and called on Ethiopian authorities to conduct an urgent investigation.
“Attacks directed against civilians and indiscriminate attacks are prohibited,” said acting assistant secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, Ramesh Rajasingham.
The United States said it was “gravely concerned” by the reported fatalities and called for an urgent investigation.
“We strongly condemn this reprehensible act,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.
European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said if confirmed, the blocking of ambulances could amount to a violation of international law.
This bombing “adds to the appalling series of violations of international humanitarian law and human rights” in Tigray, he said.