Tigray Forces Say Air Strikes Hit Ethiopia’s Mekelle, Government Denies

The Ethiopian government has been accused of launching air strikes on the northern city of Mekelle, which is the capital of the Tigray region of the country. The city is controlled by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the strikes reflect a continuation of conflict between the rebel group and the Ehtiopian government. Ethiopia’s government initially denied the strikes were a result of their action, before state media reported that they had launched a strike aimed at damaging communications infrastructure taken by the TPLF.

The strike was initially reported by Tigrai TV; the channel was saying the strike killed three civilians. This led Ethiopia’s government spokesperson, Legesse Tulu to deny the claims of Tigrai TV. Tulu said to Reuters that “[W]hy would the Ethiopian government attack its own city?…Terrorists are the ones who attack cities with innocent civilians in them, not government.” Tulu then accused the TPLF of killing innocent civilians in the neighboring Amhara and Afar regions. However, later in the day, Ethiopian state media admitted to the attack, simultaneously emphasizing that the target was TPLF-captured communications infrastructure and ignoring the claims of civilian casualties. An Ethiopian Press Agency report states that “[A]ction [was taken] against media and equipment used by the TPLF terrorists in Mekelle”. 

Voice of America-led interviews on the ground of Mekelle closely show the results of the airstrikes. Residents of the affected areas claim that the Enderta district and Adi Haki market were both hit by the strikes. Dr. Cherinet Gebru, who works at Mekelle’s flagship Ayder Referral Hospital, told VOA there were nine victims admitted Monday after the first airstrike. “[F]rom the three people who were initially admitted, two were already dead… we couldn’t help save them”. Gebremedhin Haylay told VOA that he walking with friends when the airstrike hit near the Adi Haki market, saying that “[T]here were the three of us and I was hit. My left hand and both my legs are injured.” He added that “When they [Ethiopia’s federal government] say we are targeting leadership [the TPLF], it is a lie.”

The strikes have led TPLF leadership to condemn the Ethiopian government and Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, for their role in the ongoing conflict. Getachew Reda, a TPLF spokesperson, denounced Ahmed in a Twitter post, writing “[H]e has never been for peace… The #AirStrikeonCivilians in #Mekelle is proof positive that he will do everything to terrorize our people, especially when his forces are losing on the battlefield…If people had illusions he could keep his promise to resolve the conflict peacefully, yesterday’s attack should make it clear that only sticks are effective.” 

Ethiopia’s government has been embroiled in conflict with the TPLF since November 2020. Diplomats are worried that renewed fighting will further destabilize Ethiopia, and deepen hunger in Tigray and surrounding regions. The TPLF dominated Ethiopian politics between 1991 to 2018, when it was ousted from the federal government. In 2019, in order to distance the country of ethnic nationalist coalitions and policy, Abiy Ahmed merged many ethnic parties into a newly formed Prosperity Party. The TPLF refused to join the new coalition, questioning the legitimacy of Abiy Ahmed’s election and power. The TPLF proceeded its own elections in the Tigray region, which the government called illegal. Fighting between the TPLF and Ethiopian forces began early last November, leading Ethiopian forces to capture Mekelle later in the month. Fighting continued for several months, before the TPLF recaptured the city in June 2021. 

The recent airstrikes show that the Ethiopian military has not given into Tigray separation or military rule in Northern Ethiopia. The conflict now involves Eritrea, Djibouti and Somalia and fighting has also spilled into the neighboring Ethiopian Afar and Amhara regions. This contributes to massive famines in northern Ethiopia and many instances of war crimes committed on both sides. The continuation of this conflict threatens to further destabilize Ethiopia and its neighbors.

The TPLF has attacked the Eritrean capital of Asmara during the infant days of the war, and it is hoped that the conflict is not further internationalized despite the military support of Ethiopia’s neighbors. Abiy Ahmed’s Prosperity Party was created to decrease ethnic tensions, but has alienated a large and powerful group in Ethiopian politics. Further military escalation will only lead to a drawn out and bloody conflict, compromising the security and health of Tigrayans. It seems necessary to cede some political power to Tigray groups, and legitimize the TPLF’s political branch in order to end the conflict.