More than 50 killed in northern Ethiopia air strike -aid workers and Tigray forces


NAIROBI (Reuters) -More than 50 people were killed in an air strike on Tuesday that hit a school in northern Ethiopia's Tigray region that was sheltering people displaced by conflict between the federal and regional governments, two aid workers and Tigray forces said.

The air strike in the town of Adi Daero, some 40 km from the border with Eritrea, appears to be one of the deadliest carried out during the nearly two-year war, which has killed thousands and uprooted millions.

The school was on a list of sites housing internally displaced persons (IDPs) that the Office of the United Nations Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Ethiopia sent to Ethiopia's foreign ministry in January, according to one of the aid workers and two U.N. sources.

A range of Ethiopian government and military officials did not respond to Reuters requests for comment on the air strike or the letter. The government has previously denied targeting civilians in the conflict.

The U.N. coordinator's office also did not respond to requests for comment.

Reuters could not independently verify details of the air strike or the death toll. Most communications have been down for over a year in Tigray, where the federal government has been battling regional forces since November 2020.

But four humanitarian sources, who asked not to be named because they were not authorised to speak to the media, said that the school had been hit, citing eyewitnesses and local administrative officials.

Survivors of the strike told humanitarian workers after fleeing to the town of Shire, about 25 km (15 miles) away, that at least 50 people had been killed and more than 70 injured, an aid worker in Shire told Reuters.

The survivors said they had heard what sounded like a drone, this aid worker said.

Another aid worker, who was briefed on the death toll by colleagues, said 62 people had been killed. This person did not have information about the number of people wounded.

The two other humanitarian sources, both from the United Nations, had no information about the number of casualties.

ACCUSATION

The Tigray external relations office said in a statement that 65 people had been killed and 70 injured in the strike. It blamed the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments for what it called a "massacre". Eritean troops have fought on the side of Ethiopia's federal government during the conflict.

Ethiopian officials did not respond to the accusation. Eritrean Information Minister Yemane Gebremeskel did not respond to requests for comment.

The letter to the Ethiopian government, seen by Reuters, requested "the support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to safeguard the IDP sites and to ensure the safety and security of the IDPs present in the Tigray region".

Demeke Mekonnen, Ethiopia's deputy prime minister and foreign minister, did not respond to requests for comment. Ministry spokersperson Meles Alem said the issue was not a diplomatic matter and he could therefore not comment.

Ethiopian government spokesperson Legesse Tulu, military spokesperson Colonel Getnet Adane and the prime minister's spokesperson Billene Seyoum also did not respond to requests for comment.

The deadliest previous air strike of the war occurred in January, when 59 people were killed at a displaced persons camp in the northwestern town of Dedebit, according to the U.N. human rights office.

Last week, another air strike in Adi Daero killed at least six civilians and injured at least a dozen, a doctor and two humanitarian workers said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Prime Minister Abiy's government accuses Tigray's leading party, which dominated Ethiopia's ruling coalition until Abiy came to power in 2018, of trying to reassert Tigrayan dominance over the Horn of Africa country.

Tigrayan leaders accuse Abiy of over-centralising power and oppressing Tigrayans. Both dismiss each other's accusations.

Fighting resumed in Tigray and neighbouring areas in late August after a five-month ceasefire broke down. Intense combat and air strikes have been reported across the region since then.

Ethiopia's government said on Wednesday it had accepted an invitation by the African Union to participate in peace talks this weekend. Tigray's regional government has not yet responded to the invitation.

(Reporting by Nairobi Newsroom; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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