UN cancels Tigray flights after Ethiopia airstrike

ADDIS ABABA (AFP) – Ethiopia’s latest aerial bombardment of Tigray’s capital city on Friday injured 11 civilians and forced a United Nations (UN) flight bound for the famine-threatened region to turn around, humanitarian sources and doctors told AFP on Friday.

The incident prompted the UN to suspend its twice-weekly passenger flights to Tigray for humanitarian personnel, UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters at a press conference.

The strike, the fifth on the city since last Monday according to the government, coincided with ramped-up fighting farther south in Amhara region as Ethiopia’s nearly year-long war rumbles on.

A spokeswoman for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, Billene Seyoum, told AFP the air force was targetting a training centre used by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) rebel group that was “also serving as a battle network hub by the terrorist organisation”. Residents told AFP the strike hit a field, with one reporting it set alight dry grass collected for livestock.

One civilian injured in an earlier strike who was being treated at Tigray’s flagship Ayder Referral Hospital succumbed to their injuries on Friday, said research director Dr Hayelom Kebede.

Abiy’s government has been locked in a war against the TPLF since last November, though Tigray itself has seen little combat since late June, when the rebels seized control of much of Ethiopia’s northernmost region and the military largely withdrew.

Smoke from fire billowing at the scene of an airstrike in Mekele, the capital of the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia. PHOTO: AP

Last Monday, Ethiopia’s air force launched two strikes in Tigray’s capital Mekele that the UN said killed three children and wounded several other people.

On Wednesday it bombed TPLF weapons caches in Mekele and the town of Agbe, about 80 kilometres to the west.

A hospital official told AFP that Wednesday’s strike in Mekele injured at least eight people, including a pregnant woman.

A fourth strike in Mekele on Thursday did not result in any casualties, according to medics and the TPLF.

The UN flight that was forced back because of Friday’s strike was carrying 11 humanitarian staff, said Head of the UN’s humanitarian coordination office for East Africa Gemma Connell.

“I can confirm that the government was informed of that flight before it took off, and can also confirm that the flight was forced to turn back in midair, because of the events on the ground,” Connell said.

TPLF spokesman Getachew Reda criticised the air force for putting the flight at risk.

“Our air defence units knew the UN plane was scheduled to land and it was due in large measure to their restraint it was not caught in a crossfire,” Getachew said on Twitter.

The international community has voiced alarm about the attacks.