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Dozens of people were killed in a government air strike on a busy market in northern Ethiopia, medical professionals and witnesses said, as fighting intensified in troubled Tigray region, where federal forces struggle to contain a widening insurgency.
The air strike appeared to be one of the deadliest isolated incidents in the eight-month civil war that tainted the international reputation of Ethiopian Nobel Peace Prize laureate Abiy Ahmed. The attack occurred on Tuesday in Togoga, 24 kilometers west of the Tigraan regional capital Mekelle.
A day later, on Wednesday, Tigrayan rebels hit back against the government when fighters shot down an Ethiopian Air Force C-130 transport aircraft as it approached Mekelle, according to the rebels and witnesses.
It pointed to a worsening battle in Tigray, with fighters led by Ethiopia’s once-ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, conquering areas south of Mekelle that until recently were controlled by soldiers from Eritrea. The rebels say they captured several thousand Ethiopian soldiers and held them as prisoners of war.
A spokeswoman for Mr. Abiy referred questions to the military. A spokesman for the Ethiopian military could not be reached for comment.
Mr Abiy had hoped to use the national elections on Monday to distract attention from international criticism of the war in Tigray, which sparked many reports of massacres, sexual assault and ethnic cleansing.
The vote should signal Ethiopia’s departure from decades of tough autocratic rule. But violence continued to rise in Tigray. Civilians still paid the highest price.
On Tuesday, Tsilat Ashaber, 30, sat outside an operating room at Mekelle’s Ayder Hospital as surgeons tried to rescue her two-year-old daughter Eldana, who had been badly wounded hours earlier in the Togoga air strike.
Ms. Tsilat was selling onions and tomatoes at her street stall when a bomb hit an area between restaurants and shops in the village around noon on Tuesday, she said.
“We always live in fear,” she said, tears rolling down her cheeks.
The extent of the attack in Togoga was not immediately clear as government soldiers immediately prevented ambulances from arriving in Togoga, health workers and witnesses said. Only eight people, including Ms. Tselat’s daughter, managed to reach Mekelle for treatment on Tuesday, hospital officials said.
However, on Wednesday regional health officials estimated 80 people were killed and 43 more wounded, according to a private report by a UN official in Ethiopia.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said it had facilitated the evacuation of the wounded from Togoga in local Red Cross ambulances. A spokeswoman did not want to provide any information on the number of dead or injured.
Doctors at Ayder Hospital said 33 people were treated, including Negassie Berhe, 34, who grimaced as doctors worked to save his badly wounded left arm.
“I heard the sound of the jet, then a bomb landed in the middle of the crowd,” said Berhe. “I do not know why.”
Fighting in Tigray has escalated since the weekend when the Tigray Defense Forces – the TPLF’s armed wing – stepped up operations, officials said.
In a telephone interview, Getachew Reda, an executive member of the TPLF., Said in an interview that Tigray forces attacked four divisions of the Ethiopian Army and that his forces were holding over 3,000 Ethiopian soldiers as prisoners of war.
UN documents also confirm that violence has escalated in recent days. Over the past week, UN officials have reported large-scale troop movements in the northwest and central Tigray, according to a confidential security document viewed by the New York Times.
The United Nations received reports that Tigrayan rebels had invaded Adigrat, 100 kilometers north of Mekelle, for several hours on Tuesday. However, it was later reported that the city was retaken by Ethiopia and Eritrean troops. The Associated Press quoted a local resident as saying that federal police have since seen them beat people in the center of the city.
In addition to the war, Tigray is also facing a huge humanitarian crisis.
The fighting has killed thousands of people, displaced 2 million and plunged the region into famine – the worst in any country since a 2011 famine that struck neighboring Somalia, according to a senior UN official.
Mr. Abiy has rejected international requests to end the fighting in Tigray and to start talks with the Tigrayans. To force both sides to talk about peace, the United States announced visa restrictions on an unspecified list of Ethiopian, Eritrean and Tigra officials.
However, the main focus in Ethiopia this week is on Monday’s national and regional parliamentary elections.
The elections, postponed last year because of the coronavirus pandemic, were seen as a crucial test for Mr Abiy, who billed them as the country’s first free and fair vote ever.
After taking power in 2018, Mr Abiy pledged to lead the country towards democracy – reform electoral laws, lift restrictions on opposition parties and appoint a former political prisoner to chair the Ethiopian electoral committee. In Monday’s elections, 46 parties and over 9,000 candidates were represented – a record.
But because of the war in Tigray, ethnic violence in several other regions and logistical problems, no votes took place in about a fifth of the constituencies. The largest opposition parties boycotted the vote in Oromia, Ethiopia’s most populous province.
With the first results in the coming days, it was widely expected that Abiy’s Prosperity Party, which dominates the state apparatus, would win the majority of the seats and form the next government.
The recent mass murder in Tigray “further increases the commitment to Mr. Abiy,” said William Davison, chief Ethiopia analyst at the International Crisis Group.
“He will have to decide whether to use the mandate to give priority to preventing mass starvation in Tigray,” said Davidson. “Or whether it will double a war that does not seem to be winning and will certainly lead to more mass suffering among the civilian population.”