Tigray’s capital hit by airstrikes as UN scales back presence in region

Thick, black smoke was spotted rising over the city of Mekele but there were no immediate details of casualties.

Broken glass in Mekele
Broken glass in Mekele

New airstrikes have hit the capital of Ethiopia’s Tigray region, residents have said.

The news came as the United Nations said it is slashing by more than half its Tigray presence as a government blockade halts humanitarian aid efforts and people die from lack of food.

The war in Africa’s second-most populous country has ground on for nearly a year between Ethiopian and allied forces and the Tigray ones who long dominated the national government before a falling-out with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner.

There were no immediate details of deaths from the new airstrikes in Mekele, reported by Kindeya Gebrehiwot of the Tigray external affairs office and confirmed by a resident and a humanitarian worker. Tigrai TV showed thick black smoke rising over the city.

“Indeed there have been airstrikes in Mekele today,” Ethiopian government spokesperson Legesse Tulu told the Associated Press. “It targeted the facilities that (Tigray forces) have turned into arm construction and repair armaments sites.”

The attack came two days after Ethiopia’s air force confirmed airstrikes in Mekele that a witness said killed three children. The air force said communications towers and equipment were attacked. Mekele hadn’t seen fighting since June, when Tigray forces retook much of the region in a dramatic turn in the war.

The airstrikes have caused fresh panic in a city under siege, where doctors and others have described running out of medicines and other basic needs.

Despite pleas from the UN and others to allow basic services and humanitarian aid to Tigray’s six million people, Ethiopia’s government this week called those expectations “absurd” while the Tigray forces now fight in the neighbouring regions of Amhara and Afar. Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced there, widening the deadly crisis.

“Although not all movements have yet taken place, there will probably be a reduction from nearly 530 to around 220 UN staff on the ground in Tigray,” UN humanitarian spokesman Saviano Abreu told the AP. The decision is “directly linked to the operation constraints we have been faced with over the last months” along with the volatile security situation, he said.

The lack of fuel and cash because of the government’s blockade on Tigray “has made it extremely challenging for humanitarians to sustain life-saving activities” at the time they’re needed most, Abreu added.

Some 1,200 humanitarian workers including the reduced UN presence will remain in Tigray, he said.

The AP in recent weeks has confirmed the first starvation deaths in Tigray under the government blockade.

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