Ethiopian military airstrikes forced Friday’s United Nations humanitarian flight from Tigray to abandon its landing. A government spokesperson said that authorities knew of the inbound flight. This appeared to be an abrupt escalation of intimidation tactics used by authorities against aid workers during the year-long Tigray war.
According to The Associated Press, U.N. flights to Mekele were also suspended. This is the base for humanitarian operations in Tigray. The flight carrying 11 passengers was cleared by federal authorities, but the “received instructions from the Mekele airport control tower to abort landing.”
This friction between the government of humanitarian groups is taking place amid the worst world hunger crisis in a decade. Nearly half-million Tigray residents are said to be in dire famine-like circumstances. Since June, the government has imposed a “defacto humanitarian blockade” in the region, which is home to 6 million people. The Associated Press has also reported that people are starving to death.
Legesse Tulu, a spokesperson for the Ethiopian government, stated that the U.N. flight was present in the area. However, he said that the U.N. and military aircraft had departed at a different time and from the same direction. It was not immediately clear how close they were to one another.
Getachew Reda, a Tigray force spokesperson, said in a tweet that “our air defense units knew U.N. aircraft was scheduled to land” and that it was because of their restraint that it wasn’t caught in crossfire. He said that Ethiopian authorities had “set up the U.N. aircraft to be hit with our guns.”
A military spokesperson did not respond to questions.
Legesse stated that Friday’s airstrikes in Mekele were directed at a former military training facility, which was being used by Tigray forces as a “battlenetwork hub”. Residents claim they struck a field near Mekele University. Kindeya Gebrehiwot, a Tigray spokesperson, said that about a dozen people were injured.
In recent months, Ethiopia’s government has accused humanitarian groups of supporting Tigray forces. Last month, it took the unusual step of exiling seven U.N. officials and accusing them of fabricating the Tigray crisis. Authorities conducted intrusive searches on U.N. flight attendants and took away medical cargo.
The U.N. claims that only 1% of the 5.2 million people in immediate need were provided food aid between Oct. 7-13. Gemma Connell, a humanitarian spokeswoman, said that aid delivery has been halted by the airstrikes in Mekele, which began this week. She added that “not one truck” has entered Tigray from Monday.
Since November, thousands of people were killed in fighting between Tigray forces that once dominated the national government of Ethiopia and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmad.
In recent months, Tigray forces have retaken Tigray and brought the fighting to the Amhara and Afar areas. According to the U.N., more than 2,000,000 people have been displaced.
Connell stated that if conditions remain current, “our operations in Tigray will come to an abrupt halt in not so distant future”.
Three children were killed and more than a dozen others were injured in the airstrikes in Mekele, which took place despite international calls for a ceasefire and threats of additional sanctions.
The government claimed that a strike was made against another Tigray military base near Mekele on Thursday. However, a Tigray spokesperson stated that the plane could not have hit targets because of air defenses.
On Wednesday, an airstrike struck an industrial complex that the government claimed was used by Tigray forces for weapons repair. A Tigray spokesperson denied this and stated that the compound was used to make cars and tractors. On Monday, two other airstrikes struck the city.
Tigray is still under a communications blackout that makes it difficult to verify claims. Meanwhile, areas of fighting in Amhara remain largely unreachable.
Reports of heavy fighting in Amhara are prompting the airstrikes. A Tigray force spokesperson claimed that advances had placed the government-held cities of Dessie, Kombolcha, “within range” of artillery. This prompted alarm.
Dessie is home to many people who fled violence further north. According to one resident, he saw many cars leave Dessie with mattresses, cooking equipment, and other household goods strapped to their roofs over the past few days. However, many displaced people remain stuck because they cannot afford to move.
He also mentioned numerous vehicles transporting troops north to front and the constant sounding of shelling. For fear of retribution, he spoke anonymously.