NAIROBI, Kenya — An airstrike hit a busy market in the northern Tigray village of Togoga in Ethiopia on Tuesday, according to health workers who said soldiers had blocked medical teams from traveling to the scene. Dozens of people were killed, they and a former resident said, citing witnesses.
Two doctors and a nurse in Tigray’s regional capital, Mekele, said they were unable to confirm how many people had been killed, but one doctor said health workers at the scene reported more than 80 civilian deaths. The health workers spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.
The reports of the airstrike come after some of the fiercest fighting in the Tigray region since the conflict began in November, as Ethiopian forces supported by neighboring Eritrea pursue Tigray’s former leaders. A military spokesman and the spokeswoman for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Wounded patients being treated at Mekele’s Ayder hospital told health workers that a plane had dropped a bomb on Togoga’s marketplace. The six patients included a 2-year-old and a 6-year-old, the nurse said. An ambulance carrying a wounded baby to Mekele, about 35 miles away by road, was blocked for two hours and the baby died on the way, the nurse added.
Hailu Kebede, the head of foreign affairs for the Salsay Woyane Tigray opposition party, who comes from Togoga, said that one fleeing witness to the attack had counted more than 30 bodies and other witnesses were reporting more than 50 people killed. Many more were said to be wounded.
“It was horrific,” said a staff member with an international aid group who said he had spoken with a colleague and others at the scene. “We don’t know if the jets were coming from Ethiopia or Eritrea. They are still looking for bodies by hand. More than 50 people were killed, maybe more.”
On Tuesday afternoon, a convoy of ambulances attempting to reach Togoga, about 15 miles west of Mekele, was turned back by soldiers near Tukul, the health workers said. Several more ambulances were turned back later in the day and on Wednesday morning, but one group of medical workers reached the site on Tuesday evening via a different route.
Those medical workers were treating 40 wounded people but told colleagues in Mekele that the number of wounded was probably higher because some people had fled after the attack. Five of the wounded patients were said to need emergency operations but the health workers were unable to evacuate them. The route to Mekele includes challenges stretches of dirt roads.
“We have been asking, but until now we didn’t get permission to go, so we don’t know how many people are dead,” said one of the doctors in Mekele.
Another doctor said that Ethiopian soldiers had twice shot at a Red Cross ambulance in which he had tried to reach the scene on Tuesday, and had then held his team for 45 minutes before ordering them back to Mekele.
“We are not allowed to go,” he said, adding that they were told that anyone who went in would be helping the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, which governed the region until it was ousted by a government offensive in November. The subsequent fighting has killed thousands and forced more than 2 million people from their homes.
While the United Nations has said all sides have been accused of abuses, Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers have been repeatedly accused by witnesses of looting and destroying health centers across the Tigray region and denying civilians access to care.
This month, humanitarian agencies warned that 350,000 people in Tigray are facing famine. Aid workers have said they have been repeatedly denied access to several parts of the region by soldiers.
The government of Mr. Abiy says it has nearly defeated the rebels. But forces loyal to the liberation front recently announced an offensive in parts of Tigray and have claimed a string of victories.
Ethiopia held federal and regional elections on Monday. The vote was peaceful in most parts of the country, although there was no voting in Tigray.
The vote was delayed last year because of the coronavirus pandemic, heightening tensions between the federal government and the liberation front, which went ahead with its own regional election in September.