Local residents and medics quoted by multiple news outlets said this week dozens of innocent people were killed in the aerial attack on a busy market in the town of Togoga on Tuesday, Al Jazeera reported.
Speaking to journalists on Thursday, army spokesman Colonel Getnet Adane said the operation “dismantled” armed forces loyal to the northern region’s former governing party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
“We do not accept that this operation targeted civilians,” he said, cautioning that the rebels were known to wear civilian clothes.
Reporting from the capital, Addis Ababa, Al Jazeera’s Mohamed Adow quoted Getnet as saying that the TPLF fighters had gathered to commemorate Martyrs’ Day when the air raid occurred.
“He said they had intelligence and attacked a ceremony which was attended by many fighters who were commemorating the massacre that happened in 1988 which was carried out by the Derg regime at the time against Tigray rebels,” Adow said.
Survivors and health workers, however, described aerial explosions striking the marketplace at the peak of trading, killing and wounding dozens, including children. A local health official cited by put the death toll to at least 64, with 180 wounded, while medics told news agencies that the Ethiopian military was blocking ambulances from reaching the scene.
The Ethiopian military, aided by Eritrean troops, has been battling forces loyal to the TPLF for nearly eight months.
The conflict has killed thousands of people, if not more, and displaced two million, triggering an immense humanitarian crisis. Last week, the United Nations warned that 350,000 people in Tigray are facing famine conditions, with another two million “just a step away”.
Asked about children wounded in Tuesday’s attack, Getnet said the TPLF uses propaganda and is known for faking injuries. He also said the doctors quoted by the media are not “real doctors”.
The remarks were the first acknowledgement by the military of the air raid, which came after residents said new fighting had flared in recent days north of Tigray’s regional capital, Mekelle.
The UN has called for an urgent investigation into the attack and said it was “deeply disturbed” by reports the army had blocked evacuations.
“Attacks directed against civilians and indiscriminate attacks are prohibited,” said Ramesh Rajasingham, acting assistant secretary-general for humanitarian affairs.
The United States also said it was “gravely concerned” by the reported deaths and called for an urgent investigation.
“We strongly condemn this reprehensible act,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.