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Mekelle airstrike marks an escalation in the Tigray conflict, as aid fight looms

By Jaysim Hanspal
Posted on Monday, 18 October 2021 19:30

Workers from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and volunteers from the Ethiopian Red Cross distribute relief supplies to civilians in Tigray region
Workers from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and volunteers from the Ethiopian Red Cross distribute relief supplies to civilians in Tigray region, Ethiopia January 27, 2021. Picture taken January 27, 2021. International Committee of the Red Cross/Handout via REUTERS

As the conflict in Tigray continues to destabilise Northern Ethiopia, many fear the region could be pushed deeper into famine, after an airstrike on the capital of Mekelle today has threatened the lives of more innocent civilians, injuring dozens and killing three in two airstrikes today, according to reports from the BBC.

An airstrike in Mekelle, Tigray today (18 October) has marked an escalation in violence in the Tigray conflict, with Ethiopian military forces suspected to be behind the attack that has killed three and injured many more.

Getachew K Reda, advisor to the President of Tigray, said on Twitter, “One of their targets was #thePlanetHotel where a dozen or so Humanitarian Agencies used to have their employees. Apparently the authorities in Addis are in the know about #UNEthiopia’s recent decision.” His comment is in reference to the recent UN backlash against Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s decision to expel seven UN officials, after accusing them of diverting aid to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).

Denial of reports

Kindeya Gebrehiwot, a spokesman for the Tigray authorities, told The Associated Press a market was bombed deliberately on a Monday, a busy market day and that many people were wounded.

A government spokesperson denied reports that they were behind the attacks, and called upon the international community to “support Ethiopia’s overtures for peace”, as videos on social media show the devastating impact of the strikes in the capital.

The Ethiopian government have dismissed the allegations.

The strikes come shortly after Ethiopia had launched a new offensive against the holdout rebels in the northern province.

Fighting enters a new phase

It marks a new phase in the year-long war, sparking online outrage, and pressure on the UN, the EU and other nations to intervene is increasing. Activists are calling for a dedicated no-fly zone and international sanctions from countries like Canada, who continue to support Ethiopia with aid.

For Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, the 11-month conflict has made him increasingly unpopular with UN officials, and the US, who announced sanctions on the country.

The visa restrictions introduced by the US encompass those “responsible for, or complicit in, undermining resolution of the crisis in Tigray”. Abiy’s government has been accused of a variety of human rights abuses, including starvation and mass rape. The PM had won the prize for his efforts of freeing political prisoners and the press, and ending a diplomatic standoff with Eritrea, whose forces now help the central government to launch their offensive on Tigray.

Area remains closed off

In a recent statement on state-owned Ethiopia Television (ETV), the Prime Minister discouraged foreign aid, linking it to the diplomatic pressure currently facing the government. He said: “If we make sure that this thing called wheat [food aid] does not enter Ethiopia, 70% of Ethiopia’s problems will be solved…Ethiopia’s problem is wheat aid. With wheat aid comes diseases. With wheat aid come many things, many consequences. If we stop it, many of the problems will be solved.”

With the area closed off to journalists and surrounded by hostile forces, the UN says the government is preventing food aid to hundreds of thousands of starving people – an accusation Addis Ababa strongly denies. A communications blackout has made it increasingly challenging to verify information, preventing aid organisations from knowing the true numbers of people affected, as Abiy has also been accused of blocking medical supplies, fuel, and other essentials from entering the region.

Continued instability

The conflict has led to the displacement of close to two million people in 2019, forcing people to flee their homes and seek safer refuge. In June, the Prime Minister reiterated his option that “there is no hunger in Tigray”, despite reports from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) showing an estimated 400,000 in “famine-like conditions”. That was months ago.

The continued instability, which took a dramatic turn in June when the blockade was imposed, has vastly increased the number of people at risk of starvation, inflating food prices and leaving many families desperate to survive.

The destruction of crops, grain stores, and commercial operations have further added to the strain the conflict has imposed on the people of Tigray. Many aid workers have compared the current crisis in Tigray to Ethiopia’s famine in the 1980s, which killed between 400,000-700,000 people.

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