Ethiopian military airstrikes on Friday forced a United Nations humanitarian flight to abandon its landing in the capital of the country’s Tigray region, several aid workers said, and a government spokesman confirmed that authorities were aware of the inbound flight. The development appeared to be a sharp escalation in the intimidation tactics that Ethiopian authorities have used against aid workers amid the intensifying, year-long Tigray war.
The aid workers spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to share the information with the media.
Ethiopian government spokesman Legesse Tulu told The Associated Press authorities were aware the UN flight was in the area but said the UN and military flights had a “different time and direction.” It wasn't immediately clear how close the planes came to each other.
The friction between the government and humanitarian groups is occurring amid the world's worst hunger crisis in a decade, with close to a half-million people in Tigray said to be facing famine-like conditions. The government since June has imposed what the UN calls a “de facto humanitarian blockade” on the region of some 6 million people, and the AP has reported that people have begun to starve to death.
Legesse said Friday's airstrikes in the city of Mekele targeted a former military training center being used as a “battle network hub” by rival Tigray forces. Residents confirmed the latest airstrikes, with one saying they occurred near Mekele University. There was no immediate information on any casualties.
A military spokesman didn’t immediately respond to questions about the UN flight, which had planned to land in Mekele, the main base of humanitarian operations in Tigray.
Ethiopia’s government in recent months has accused some humanitarian groups of supporting the Tigray forces, and last month it took the extraordinary step of expelling seven UN officials while accusing them without evidence of falsely inflating the scale of the Tigray crisis. Authorities also have subjected aid workers on UN flights to intrusive searches and removed medical cargo. Meanwhile, the UN says just 1% of the targeted 5.2 million people in urgent need received food aid between Oct. 7 and 13.
Thousands of people have been killed since November, when a political falling-out between the Tigray forces who long dominated the national government and the current administration of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed erupted in fighting.
Tigray forces in recent months have retaken the Tigray region and brought the fighting into the neighboring Amhara and Afar regions. The UN says more than 2 million people are now displaced overall.
Ethiopia's government this week began airstrikes in Mekele for the first time in several months, killing three children and injuring more than a dozen people, despite repeated international calls for a cease-fire in the war and the threat of further sanctions.
On Thursday, the government claimed a successful strike against another military base used by the Tigray forces near Mekele, but Tigray forces spokesman Getachew Reda asserted that air defenses prevented the plane from hitting targets.
An airstrike on Wednesday hit an industrial compound the government said was used by the Tigray forces to repair weapons. A Tigray spokesman denied that and said it was used to produce cars and tractors. Two other airstrikes hit the city on Monday.
Tigray remains under a communications blackout, making it difficult to verify claims, while areas of fighting in Amhara are largely unreachable as well.
The airstrikes come amid reports of renewed heavy fighting in Amhara. On Wednesday, Tigray forces spokesman Getachew claimed advances had put the government-held towns of Dessie and Kombolcha “within artillery range,” prompting alarm.
Dessie hosts a large number of displaced people who have fled fighting further north.