Ethiopian forces hit the northern city of Mekele with air strikes on Monday, humanitarian officials and diplomats told AFP, the first reported bombing raids over the Tigrayan capital since the early stages of the year-long war.
Air raids were reported inside and outside Mekele, the regional capital held by the Tigray People's Liberation Front since it was recaptured from government forces in June.
"Air strike now in Mekele," one humanitarian official in the city said via SMS to AFP on condition of anonymity, describing attacks also confirmed by a second humanitarian source, two diplomats and a rebel spokesman.
The first raid occurred in the morning on the outskirts of Mekele near a cement factory, the sources said.
The second took place around midday in the city centre near the Planet Hotel, often used by top officials from the TPLF, the region's former ruling party and the target of a government military operation since November 2020.
The air strikes are the first on Mekele since the early days of the conflict, and come as the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed appeared to be pressing a new offensive in the war.
The TPLF said government forces were "losing big" and the aerial assaults were designed to inflict civilian casualties as revenge.
"Monday is market day in Mekelle & the intention is all too palpable," TPLF spokesman Getachew Reda said on Twitter.
The reports could not be independently verified and government officials could not be reached for comment.
Medical officials in Mekele could not immediately be contacted to provide information on casualties.
The aerial bombardment came as the TPLF appeared to be moving south of Tigray toward Dessie, a city in Amhara region where tens of thousands have sought refuge from the rebel advance since July.
One resident told AFP that Dessie was "flooded" with displaced civilians arriving from Wuchale, another town to the north.
At the weekend, Getachew said rebel forces had taken Wuchale and some surrounding territory, and would march all the way to Addis Ababa if necessary.
"If that's what it takes to break the siege on Tigray, why not?" he told AFP in a text message.
Government and military officials have so far offered little information about the latest surge in fighting, which comes shortly after Abiy was sworn in for a new term two weeks ago.
However a military official in Amhara told AFP on Monday the TPLF's claim to have taken Wuchale was false.
The conflict erupted last November in Ethiopia's northernmost Tigray region after Abiy sent troops to topple the TPLF, which dominated national politics before he took office in 2018.
Government forces swiftly drove the TPLF from Tigray's cities and towns, but the rebels retook most of the region including Mekele by late June.
In July the TPLF pushed into the neighbouring Afar and Amhara regions, a move it said was intended to prevent government forces from regrouping and to break what it describes as a humanitarian siege of Tigray, where the UN estimates hundreds of thousands face famine-like conditions.
There were reports last week of fresh clashes between government and rebel forces in Afar, a region bordering Tigray, after a month-long lull and in a further sign of a new offensive by government troops.
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