An image posted on the Facebook account of the TPLF-run Tigrai TV shows debris after an apparent airstrike in Mekelle on Monday.
CNN  — 

The capital of Ethiopia’s war-torn Tigray region was hit by at least two airstrikes on Monday, an eyewitness and a spokesman for forces fighting the country’s central government told CNN.

The eyewitness in Mekelle told CNN she heard an explosion and saw smoke in the vicinity of Adi Haki Market, describing a scene of panic with people running around when she left her office following the blast.

One resident of the city told Reuters one strike hit close to a market, behind a hotel. An aid worker and a doctor in the region also said there had been an attack and a diplomat shared pictures with Reuters of what they said was the aftermath, including pools of blood and smashed windows.

A spokesman for the Tigray People’s Liberation Front accused Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of targeting civilians in an attack on a busy market day. Ethiopia’s federal government launched a military offensive to oust the TPLF last November and fighting has been ongoing since.

One of the targets of the airstrikes was the Planet Hotel where a “dozen or so humanitarian agencies used to have their employees,” TPLF spokesman Getachew Reda claimed. “Our people won’t be cowed into submission by a desperate move by a desperate regime teetering on the brink of collapse.”

The state-run Ethiopian Press Agency reported Monday that the Ethiopian Air Force “launched a successful offensive” against a TPLF communication network and facility in Mekelle. Airstrikes were “carried out with the utmost precision to prevent civilian casualties,” the report said.

Ethiopia’s government communications chief Leggese Tulu had earlier denied the strikes, telling CNN that “the government doesn’t have any plan to terrorize its own people. Why should it? It’s not true. Those terrorists want to confuse the world by falsely claiming we are being attacked both by air and land to turn the world against Ethiopia.”

In a separate statement, the government spokesperson’s office also said that “the government of Ethiopia would like to request the US and its partners not to be swayed by the crying wolf TPLF and downplay the suffering of people in north Wollo, Gonder, Wag Hemera of Amhara, and Afar regions.”

The Ethiopian military has been in control of much of Tigray since November 2020, when it launched a major assault on the region with the support of Eritrean soldiers and local militias in an effort to remove the TPLF from power. It was the last time that airstrikes were launched on Mekelle.

The operation was initiated after Abiy accused the TPLF of attacking a federal military base in Mekelle, and after Tigray’s leaders took the decision to elect a regional administration.

In July, Tigrayan fighters retook Mekelle – a city of a half-million people – marking a stunning turn in the country’s devastating conflict.

In the wake of Mekelle’s capture, the Ethiopian government announced a unilateral ceasefire for several months. But Tigrayan forces categorically ruled out a truce, with a TPLF spokesman saying their forces would not rest until the Ethiopian military and its allied forces had left the entire region.

Human rights abuses

Ethiopia has seen a wave of atrocities over the last eleven months of conflict, which has forced 2 million to flee, fueled famine and left thousands dead. The conflict, by many accounts, bears the hallmarks of genocide.

In late September, Ethiopia said that it was expelling seven senior United Nations officials, just days after the UN’s aid chief warned that the Tigray region was descending into famine due to the government’s blockade of aid deliveries.

An estimated 18,600 children in Tigray under the age of five have been admitted for treatment for severe acute malnutrition (SAM) from February to August this year, according to UNICEF. That’s a 100% increase compared to 2020, it said.

Last month, US President Joe Biden signed a new executive order authorizing broad sanctions against those involved in perpetrating the ongoing conflict. But they have not yet gone into effect.

Asked on Monday what the administration was waiting for to apply the sanctions, US State Department spokesperson Ned Price told CNN that “we are absolutely prepared to use that tool as might be appropriate.”

Though all sides have been accused by the UN of committing grave human rights abuses, previous CNN investigations found that Eritrean soldiers were behind among some of the worst abuses carried out in Tigray, including sexual violence and massacres. Eritrea has denied wrongdoing by its soldiers, and has refused to pull them out of the region.