By Katharine Houreld
ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) -An air strike killed at least 43 people in the town of Togoga in Ethiopia’s Tigray region on Tuesday, a medical official told Reuters, after residents said new fighting had flared in recent days north of the regional capital Mekelle.
Ethiopian military spokesman Colonel Getnet Adane did not confirm or deny the incident. He said air strikes were a common military tactic and that government forces do not target civilians.
The bomb hit a market at around 1 p.m., according to a woman who said her husband and 2-year-old daughter had been injured.
“We didn’t see the plane, but we heard it,” she told Reuters on Wednesday. “When the explosion happened, everyone ran out. After a time we came back and were trying to pick up the injured.”
The woman said the market had been full of families, and she did not see any armed forces in the area. “Many, many” people had been killed, she said.
Reuters could not independently verify her account. She and other sources asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals.
The medical official confirmed at least 43 fatalities, citing witnesses and first responders.
A spokesperson for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the head of a government task force on Tigray did not respond to requests for comment on the incident.
A senior United Nations official said on Wednesday that he was “disturbed by reports of bombing yesterday that killed and wounded civilians in a market in Togoga, Tigray.”
“All parties to the conflict must respect their obligations under international humanitarian law,” said Ramesh Rajasingham, the U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs.
“I call on the Ethiopian authorities to carry out a prompt and effective investigation into this attack,” he added.
News of the airstrike came as Ethiopian officials counted ballots from national and regional parliamentary elections held this week in seven of the nation’s 10 regions.
No voting was held in Tigray, where the military has been battling forces loyal to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the region’s former ruling party, since November. Security concerns and problems with ballot papers also delayed voting in two other regions.
Residents reported that TPLF forces had entered several towns north of Mekelle in the past three days, withdrawing from one of them within hours.
The official and two other health workers helping with the response in Togoga told Reuters on Wednesday that Ethiopian soldiers were blocking the main road from Mekelle to the town and preventing ambulances from reaching the scene.
“Patients are dying right now,” said the official.
He said two ambulances had been able to reach the town via a back road late on Tuesday but did not have the necessary equipment and were not being allowed to leave.
He said the teams had counted at least 40 dead at the scene, three people had died overnight, and there were 44 critically wounded patients needing treatment.
Another medical worker said around 20 health workers in six ambulances had tried to reach the wounded on Tuesday but soldiers stopped them at a checkpoint.
“They told us we couldn’t go to Togoga. We stayed more than one hour at the checkpoint trying to negotiate. We had a letter from the health bureau – we showed them. But they said it was an order.”
Military spokesman Getnet denied that the military was blocking ambulances.
(Additional reporting by Ayenat Mersie and Giulia ParaviciniEditing by Toby Chopra, Peter Graff, Catherine Evans and Jonathan Oatis)