Ethiopian Military Condemned by U.S. for 'Reprehensible Act' of Firing on Busy Market

The Ethiopian military insists the only targets in an airstrike on a busy marketplace in the Tigray region were combatants, but regional health officials confirmed dozens of civilians, including children as young as 1, had been killed or injured in Tuesday's attack, the Associated Press reported.

The airstrike—which the U.S. State Department called a "reprehensible act"—in the village of Togoga killed at least 51 people and left 33 missing and more than 100 wounded, a regional health official told AP.

"There are a lot of people injured, but they didn't get medical service and help because of the blockage of the road by the military," Dr. Kinfe Redae said.

"Denying victims urgently needed medical care is heinous and absolutely unacceptable," the U.S. State Department said. "We urge the Ethiopian authorities to ensure full and unhindered medical access to the victims immediately. We also call for an urgent and independent investigation."

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Ethiopia medical workers
Medical staff give care to a young injured resident of Togoga, a village about 20 kilometers west of Mekele, at the Ayder referral hospital in Mekele, the capital of Tigray region, Ethiopia, on June 23, 2021, a day after a deadly airstrike on a market in Ethiopia's war-torn northern Tigray region, where a 7-month-old conflict surged again. Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP via Getty Images

Ethiopia says most of Tigray's 6 million people have been receiving medical care, despite the fact that many medical teams said they have repeatedly been denied access by soldiers.

A spokesman, Col. Getnet Adane, told journalists that fighters supporting the Tigray region's former leaders had assembled to celebrate Martyrs' Day on Tuesday when the airstrike occurred.

"The Ethiopian air force uses the latest technology, so it conducted a precision strike that was successful," he said. He didn't comment when reached for further details.

Tigrayans were appalled by Ethiopia's assertion that the airstrike targeted only combatants.

"It's an insult to the people and adding salt to the wounds, you know?" said Hailu Kebede, a former Togoga resident and official with the Salsay Woyane Tigray opposition party. He described how his brother, who has a shop in the market, ran for his life while his nearby home was destroyed.

"We know the area. I grew up there. There were no combatants," Hailu said. "The destroyed homes are those of my friends and my family." One of his friends lost a child in the airstrike while another child had her hand amputated, he said.

Health workers said Ethiopian forces blocked some medical teams from responding and shot at a Red Cross ambulance trying to reach the scene. All spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.

Wounded people were still being evacuated from the scene on Thursday, the International Committee of the Red Cross said, calling the transport of seriously injured to an operating center in the regional capital of Mekele "a matter of life and death."

The real death toll from the airstrike could be higher because some people likely took the dead home to their nearby villages and buried them without the knowledge of regional officials, Hailu said.

The airstrike came amid some of the fiercest fighting in Tigray since the conflict began in November as Ethiopian forces, supported by forces from neighboring Eritrea, pursue Tigray's former leaders. The Ethiopian military spokesman denied Tigray fighters' claims of gains in recent days, saying Ethiopian forces had been deployed to other locations for Monday's national election.

The U.S. also called for an immediate cease-fire in Tigray, where thousands of civilians have been killed and 350,000 people are now facing one of the world's worst famines in years.

Youngest victim
In this image made from video, Eldana, a 1-year-old who was the victim of an airstrike on a village, is treated at the Ayder Referral Hospital in Mekele, in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia, on June 23, 2021. An airstrike hit a busy market in the village of Togoga on Tuesday and killed at least 51 people, according to health workers who said soldiers blocked medical teams from traveling to the scene. AP Photo