By Mulugeta Atsbeha and Salem Solomon
Ethiopian forces carried out an airstrike Friday on the city of Mekelle, their fifth on the Tigray regional capital since Monday.
There were no immediate reports of casualties following Friday’s airstrike, which witnesses say hit a farmer’s field near a fenced off area on the eastern side of Mekelle University.
A U.N. humanitarian flight bound for Mekelle had to turn back in mid-air to Addis Ababa Friday because of the airstrike, according to Gemma Connell, head of the regional office for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Connell said this week’s air strikes and recent fighting in Tigray have had major consequences because not a single aid truck has entered the embattled northern Ethiopian region since Monday.
Ethiopia’s state-owned Fana Broadcasting Corporation reported Friday’s airstrike targeted military training spots used by Tigrayan forces.
“Another one of the terrorist group TPLF’s [Tigray People’s Liberation Front] training sites has been the target of air strikes today,” said the report, which cited the website Ethiopia Current Issue Fact Check, a pro-government initiative.
“This site was ENDF’s [Ethiopian National Defense Force’s] training center before being appropriated by TPLF for military training of illegal recruits. It is also serving as a battle network hub by the terrorist org.”
TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael said the airstrikes are a last ditch effort to turn the tide in the conflict between the TPLF and the Ethiopian government, which has raged on for nearly a year.
“They are desperate on the war front,” he said, speaking to Reuters by satellite phone from an undisclosed location. “My interpretation is they are bombing us because they are losing on the ground and it’s their reprisal. The fact that they are bombing shows they don’t care about Tigrayan civilians.”
On Wednesday, U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq confirmed that three children were among those killed in this week’s attacks.
Haq said colleagues at the U.N. “are alarmed at the intensification of the conflict and once again reminded all parties to the conflict of their obligations under international humanitarian law to protect civilians and civilian infrastructure.”
Witnesses who spoke to VOA’s Tigrigna Service reported civilian injuries and deaths.
The airstrike Thursday that targeted Mesfin Industrial Engineering, an equipment manufacturing company, injured 15 people, who are receiving medical help at Mekelle’s flagship Ayder Referral Hospital, according to Girmay Legas, the director of the emergency room at the hospital, who spoke to VOA’s Tigrigna Service.
“There are many who were seriously injured, especially two of the people who had to go straight into the operating room right after they were admitted,” Girmay said. “We have a five-year-old child among the 15 injured and one of the injured was pregnant and she is receiving care to find out the condition of the child.”
Girmay said most of those admitted to the hospital had “serious physical injuries,” and said the hospital did not have enough medical equipment and medicine to help the victims.
Biniam Kassa was one of those injured. “Mesfin industrial’s work focuses on normal projects like transportation but I don’t know why and in what case it was targeted,” he said. “Only thing I can say at this moment is that only civilians were attacked but nothing else.”
Filimone Yohannes was another person injured and underwent surgery on his right leg. He says the attack happened while they were in the middle of work.
“I was injured on my knee and couldn’t stand up but pulled myself to move a bit further until people came and lifted me up and brought me here [Ayder hospital] in an ambulance. I am not sure how people will go back to work and might lose their jobs and won’t be able to feed themselves if they don’t have work, people will be displaced. If you are bombarded in your place of work, how would you go back to work? How can you work?”
Ethiopian government spokesman Legesse Tulu said in a Facebook post on Wednesday that the military is making precise aerial attacks and making every effort to avoid civilian casualties.
“We confirm and assure these surgical operations have no any intended harm to civilians,” Legesse wrote.
He added that Tigrayan forces have used civilian facilities for military purposes. “They have been adept at hiding munitions and heavy artillery in places of worship and using ordinary Tigrayans as a human shield,” he wrote. “The purpose of the air strikes was just to deter the damages and atrocities the TPLF terrorist group plan[n]ed to make on the social well-being of the country and citizens.”
The Tigray conflict began almost a year ago between Ethiopian troops and the TPLF, which governed Ethiopia for three decades but now rules only the northern Tigray region.
Mekelle has not seen large-scale fighting since June, when Ethiopian forces withdrew from the area and Tigray forces retook control of most of the region. Following that, the conflict continued to spill into the neighboring regions of Amhara and Afar.
Last week, Tigray forces said the Ethiopian military had launched a ground offensive to push them out of the Amhara region and to recapture territory lost to them several months ago.
VOA Tigrigna Service’s Mulugeta Atsbeha contributed to the report from Mekelle. VOA’s Margaret Besheer contributed to the report from the United Nations.