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UN suspends humanitarian flights to Ethiopia’s Tigray after air strikes

·4-min read

Ethiopia's latest aerial bombardment of Tigray's capital city on Friday injured 11 civilians and forced a UN flight bound for the famine-threatened region to turn around, humanitarian sources and doctors told AFP Friday.

The incident prompted the UN to suspend its twice-weekly passenger flights to Tigray for humanitarian personnel, UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters at a press conference.

The strike, the fifth on the city since Monday according to the government, coincided with ramped-up fighting farther south in Amhara region as Ethiopia's nearly year-long war rumbles on.

A spokeswoman for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, Billene Seyoum, told AFP the air force was targeting a training centre used by the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) rebel group that was "also serving as a battle network hub by the terrorist organization".

Residents told AFP the strike hit a field, with one reporting it set alight dry grass collected for livestock.

One civilian injured in an earlier strike who was being treated at Tigray's flagship Ayder Referral Hospital succumbed to their injuries on Friday, said research director Dr Hayelom Kebede.

Abiy's government has been locked in a war against the TPLF since last November, though Tigray itself has seen little combat since late June, when the rebels seized control of much of Ethiopia's northernmost region and the military largely withdrew.

On Monday, Ethiopia's air force launched two strikes in Tigray's capital Mekele that the UN said killed three children and wounded several other people.

And on Wednesday it bombed TPLF weapons caches in Mekele and the town of Agbe, about 80 kilometres (50 miles) to the west.

A hospital official told AFP that Wednesday's strike in Mekele injured at least eight people, including a pregnant woman.

A fourth strike in Mekele on Thursday did not result in any casualties, according to medics and the TPLF.

The UN flight that was forced back because of Friday's strike was carrying 11 humanitarian staff, said Gemma Connell, head of the UN's humanitarian coordination office for East Africa.

“I can confirm that the government was informed of that flight before it took off, and can also confirm that the flight was forced to turn back in midair, because of the events on the ground,” Connell said.

TPLF spokesman Getachew Reda criticised the air force for putting the flight at risk.

"Our air defense units knew the UN plane was scheduled to land & it was due in large measure to their restraint it was not caught in a crossfire," Getachew said on Twitter.

Civilians flee south

The international community has voiced alarm about the attacks.

A US State Department spokesman said Wednesday that Washington "condemns the continuing escalation of violence, putting civilians in harm's way".

The air raids come amid reports of heavy fighting in Amhara, where the TPLF launched an offensive in July.

On Wednesday, Getachew claimed rebel fighters had taken control of at least two new towns in Amhara, putting the cities of Kombolcha and nearby Dessie -- where tens of thousands have sought refuge from their advance -- "within artillery range".

Much of northern Ethiopia is under a communications blackout and access for journalists is restricted, making battlefield claims difficult to verify independently.

Dessie residents on Thursday reported a heavy military presence in the area as displaced civilians from conflict-hit towns farther north continued to arrive.

Aid woes

Meanwhile, the UN has once again sounded the alarm about dire humanitarian conditions in Tigray, saying Thursday that some aid groups were forced to suspend food distribution for lack of fuel.

AFP has documented starvation deaths in multiple parts of Tigray, based on internal documents from aid groups active there.

The UN said last week that the number of young children hospitalised due to severe malnutrition between February and August was double the number recorded during the same period last year.

Some 2.5 percent of screened children were diagnosed with severe malnutrition during the past week, the UN said Thursday, up from 2.3 percent the week before.

Thursday's report also noted that during the week ending October 13, only 52,000 people in Tigray received food assistance, or one percent of the 5.2 million that aid groups are targeting.

"To reach 5.2 million people with food assistance within a six-week cycle, partners are expected to assist at least 870,000 people on average per week," the report said.

(AFP)

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