Dozens of people were reportedly killed in an airstrike on a busy market in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region on Tuesday.
Two doctors and a nurse in Tigray’s regional capital, Mekele, said they were unable to confirm how many people had been killed, but one doctor said health workers at the scene in Togoga had reported “more than 80 civilian deaths”.
The alleged airstrike comes amid some of the fiercest fighting in the Tigray region since the conflict began in November, as Ethiopian forces supported by those from neighbouring Eritrea, pursue Tigray’s former leaders.
Wounded patients being treated at Mekele’s Ayder hospital told health workers that a plane dropped a bomb on Togoga’s marketplace. The six patients included a two-year-old child with “abdominal trauma” and a six-year-old, the nurse said.
An ambulance carrying a wounded baby to Mekele, almost 37 miles (60km) away by road, was blocked for two hours and the baby died on the way, the nurse added.
Hailu Kebede, foreign affairs head for the Salsay Woyane Tigray opposition party and who comes from Togoga, said that one fleeing witness to the attack had counted more than 30 bodies and other witnesses were reporting more than 50 people killed.
Many more were said to be wounded in the remote village that is linked to Mekele in part by challenging stretches of dirt roads.
A member of an international aid group reported that he had spoken with a colleague and others at the scene and said: “It was horrific.
“We don’t know if the jets were coming from Ethiopia or Eritrea. They are still looking for bodies by hand. More than 50 people were killed, maybe more.”
A convoy of ambulances attempting to reach Togoga on Tuesday afternoon was turned back by soldiers near Tukul, the health workers said.
Several more ambulances were turned back later in the day and on Wednesday morning, but one group of medical workers reached the site on Tuesday evening using a different route.
Those medical workers were treating 40 wounded people but told colleagues in Mekele that the number of wounded was likely to be higher as some people had fled after the attack.
Five of the wounded patients were said to need emergency operations but the health workers were unable to evacuate them.
“We have been asking, but until now we didn’t get permission to go, so we don’t know how many people are dead,” one of the doctors in Mekele said.
Another doctor said the Red Cross ambulance he was traveling in on Tuesday while trying to reach the scene was shot at twice by Ethiopian soldiers, who held his team for 45 minutes before ordering them back to Mekele.
“We are not allowed to go,” he said. “They told us whoever goes, they are helping the troops of the TPLF (Tigray People’s Liberation Front).”
The TPLF governed Tigray until it was ousted by a federal government offensive in November.
The subsequent fighting has killed thousands and forced more than two million people from their homes.
While the United Nations has said all sides have been accused of abuses, Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers have been repeatedly accused by witnesses of looting and destroying health centres across the Tigray region and denying civilians access to care.
“The situation there is appalling,” European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said in Berlin on Wednesday, adding that “today a military airstrike has been producing a lot of casualties against the civilians”.
Humanitarian agencies warned this month that 350,00 people in Tigray were facing famine.
The government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed says it has nearly defeated the rebels. But forces loyal to the TPLF recently announced an offensive in parts of Tigray and have claimed a string of victories.
The reports came as Ethiopia held federal and regional elections on Monday. The vote was peaceful in most parts of the country, although there was no voting in Tigray.
The vote was delayed last year due to the Covid-19 pandemic, heightening tensions between the federal government and the TPLF, which went ahead with its own regional election in September.