An airstrike has killed at least four people, including two children, in the capital of northern Ethiopia’s Tigray region, a hospital director has said.
The federal government has denied allegations that the Air Force only targets military sites and blames Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) of staging civilian deaths.
Tigray Television, controlled by regional authorities, said the attack in Mekelle happened around 09:40 GMT on Friday and blamed it on the federal government. No other military aircraft are known to operate in Ethiopian airspace.
Federal government spokesman Legesse Tulu and military spokesman Col. Getnet Adane did not respond to questions about the airstrike, which came days after fighting resumed between the national government and Tigray forces on the border of the Tigray and Amhara regions.
Kibrom Gebreselassie, chief executive of Ayder Hospital, said the attack hit a children’s playground. It was not immediately clear if there were any military installations nearby.
Tigray Television quoted witnesses as saying a kindergarten called Red Kids Paradise in the Tigray capital was hit in the attack. It broadcast graphic images of children and adults with dismembered bodies filmed in the aftermath on the ground being treated by medical personnel.
Houses near the kindergarten were also affected by the strike, broadcaster Dimtsi Weyane reported.
Tigrayan officials called the airstrike a “heartless and sadistic assault”.
“This vicious regime has outdone itself with today’s deliberate targeting of a building for children,” they said in a statement.
A humanitarian source in the town confirmed hearing an explosion and anti-aircraft fire.
“Fake body bags”
Kibrom said on Twitter that the hospital received four dead from the airstrike, including two children, and nine others were admitted with injuries.
“Other wounded are coming. The total number so far in our hospital is 13,” he said.
Al Jazeera could not independently verify the comments.
The two sides blamed each other for breaking a four-month ceasefire between Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government and the TPLF, the group that controls Tigray.
“Civilians were dead and injured” and a rescue operation was underway, Kindeya Gebrehiwot, a TPLF spokesperson, said after Friday’s airstrike.
The Ethiopian government’s communications service said in a statement that the government would “take measures targeting the military forces that are at the root of the anti-peace sentiment of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front”.
“Ethiopian Air Force is clearly negating the attack on Ethiopia by targeting only military sites,” the government communications service said.
“However, the terrorist TPLF began dumping fake body bags in civilian areas in order to claim that the Air Force attacked civilians.”
Stéphane Djarric, spokesman for UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, said he could not confirm reports of civilians being killed in airstrikes.
“This is a very worrying development… This is a good opportunity to reaffirm the secretary-general’s call for a cessation of hostilities,” Djarric told reporters.
Famine and millions displaced
Etana Habte Dinka of James Madison University said that since the withdrawal of federal forces from Tigray months ago, the region had been besieged with food, fuel and other goods barred from entering.
“The most important thing is the timing. It is important to know why this war has resumed at this time. The government in Addis Ababa must have known that the Tigrayan forces were at their weakest point. Organizing and restarting the war is important,” he told Al Jazeera.
The war broke out in Tigray in November 2020 and spread to neighboring Afar and Amhara regions a year ago. Last November, Tigrayan forces marched towards Addis Ababa, but were repelled by a government offensive that month.
A ceasefire was announced in March after the two sides fought to a bloody stalemate and the government declared a humanitarian truce, allowing badly needed food aid to the region.
The fighting has displaced millions of people, plunged parts of Tigray into starvation conditions and killed thousands of civilians.
The vast majority of people in Tigray have not had access to telephones or the Internet for over a year.
The renewed fighting has alarmed the international community, which has urged both sides to peacefully resolve the brutal 21-month war in Africa’s second most populous country.
Since late June, Abiy’s government and the rebels have repeatedly declared their willingness to start peace talks, but have disagreed on the terms of those talks. In recent weeks, too, they have accused each other of plotting a return to combat.