UN condemns Ethiopia air raid on school as fighting escalates
The UN on Saturday condemned a deadly Ethiopian air strike on a kindergarten in war-torn Tigray as fighting between rebels and government forces intensified along the region's border.
The air raid on the city of Mekele came just days after fighting returned to Ethiopia's north, shattering a five-month truce and dimming hopes of peace talks to end the brutal war.
On Saturday, the government said federal forces had withdrawn from Kobo, a city just south of rebel-held Tigray, in a border region where combat erupted in recent days.
The Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), which has been fighting forces allied to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed for 21 months, said it had captured a number of towns and cities in a counter-offensive.
The tit-for-tat claims could not be independently verified, as access to northern Ethiopia is severely restricted.
On Friday, as conflict on the ground escalated, an air strike on Mekele killed at least four people including two children, an official at the city's biggest hospital told AFP.
Tigrai TV, a local network, put the death toll at seven, including three children.
The broadcaster aired graphic footage of mangled playground equipment and a compound brightly painted with cartoons in ruins at the apparent scene of the strike.
Addis Ababa said only military sites were targeted and accused the TPLF of "dumping fake body bags in civilian areas" to manufacture outrage.
But the UN children's agency UNICEF said the strike "hit a kindergarten, killing several children, and injuring others".
"UNICEF strongly condemns the air strike," said UNICEF chief Catherine Russell.
"Yet again, an escalation of violence in northern Ethiopia has caused children to pay the heaviest price. For almost two years, children and their families in the region have endured the agony of this conflict. It must end."
In Tigray Due to blockade there is famine, healthcare facilities has closed, no electricity , no bank, the list is long. That wasn’t enough 🇪🇹 airstrikes at a kindergarten took little children lives. #TigrayUnderAttack #TigrayGenocide @UN @SamanthaJPower @POTUS @antonioguterres pic.twitter.com/6vXvgdFtyo— Meronawit Axumawit (@meronawit_Axum) August 27, 2022
I condemn today’s air strikes in #Mekelle, which resulted in the deaths of civilians. I urge again for the respect of International Humanitarian Law. Civilians are #NotATarget. I call on all parties to engage in peace talks and to allow humanitarian aid to reach those in need.— Janez Lenarčič (@JanezLenarcic) August 26, 2022
#TigrayUnderAttack⚡️For over 21 months, 6 million Tigrayan people have been under siege. For over 21 months #TigrayIsSuffering; Tigray people are subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment, Rape, torture, crimes against humanity and starvation. #StopWarInTigray #EndTigraySiege— Goodluck קהלת ג, א-ח (@RealHauleGluck) August 27, 2022
Vicky Ford, the UK's Africa minister, said on Twitter: "Reports of civilian casualties following airstrikes on #Tigray are appalling."
The EU commissioner for crisis management, Janez Lenarcic, called for international humanitarian law to be respected.
"Civilians are #NotATarget," he said on Twitter.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, himself from Tigray, described the air strike as "barbaric" and "horrifying".
In March, the UN said at least 304 civilians had been killed in the three months prior in airstrikes "apparently carried out by the Ethiopian Air Force".
The UN human rights office has documented aerial bombardments and drone strikes on refugee camps, a hotel and a market, and warned that disproportionate attacks against non-military targets could amount to war crimes.
Ethiopia's air force operates the only known military aircraft over the country's skies.
Untold numbers have been killed in northern Ethiopia since the war began in November 2020, and the conflict has been marked by reports of civilian atrocities.
A truce in March paused the worst of the bloodshed and allowed aid convoys to slowly return to Tigray, where the UN says millions are nearing starvation, and cash, fuel and medicine are in short supply.
Since the end of June, Abiy's government and the rebels have repeatedly stated their willingness to enter peace negotiations but disagreed on the terms of such talks.
And on Wednesday, fresh offensives broke out southeast of Tigray in border regions near Amhara and Afar, with both sides accusing the other of firing first.
On Saturday, the government announced the army had pulled back from Kobo, a city in Amhara, under attack from "many directions" by the TPLF.
"In order to avoid mass casualties within the city in exchange of fire, the defence forces have been forced to leave Kobo city and take defence positions on the outskirts," the government said in a statement.
The TPLF said its "heroic army, after repelling and weakening the enemy's attacks for the last three days" had pushed through army lines and taken Kobo along with other towns and cities in the area.
The UK on Saturday advised its citizens against travel to Lalibela, a popular tourist destination some 130 kilometres (80 miles) by road west of Kobo.
The return to battle has alarmed the international community, which has been pushing for a peaceful resolution to the war in Africa's second most populous nation.
Abiy, the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner, sent troops into Tigray 21 months ago to topple the TPLF, accusing the former ruling party of the dissident region of attacks on federal army camps.