The World Food Program informed The Associated Press that U.N. flights to Mekele, Tigray's base for humanitarian operations, were suspended. It stated that the flight carrying 11 passengers was cleared by federal authorities, but received instructions from the Mekele airport control tower to abort landing. It returned safely to Addis Ababa.
Martin Griffiths, U.N. humanitarian chief, stated that the U.N. did not receive any prior warnings of attacks on Mekelle. He also said that the U.N. had received all clearances necessary for the flight.
He expressed his "grave concern" about civilians who are facing airstrikes in Mekele, insufficient humanitarian assistance to Tigray and alarm at the increasing violence against civilians in neighboring Amhara or Afar.
Gemma Connell from the U.N.'s regional humanitarian officer for southern and east Africa told reporters that she's seen flights turn around due to weather. "But this is the first flight to turn around in Ethiopia, at least according to my knowledge," Connell said.
This friction between the government of humanitarian groups is taking place amid the worst world hunger crisis in a decade. Nearly half-million Tigray residents are said to be in dire famine-like circumstances. Since June, the government has imposed a "defacto humanitarian blockade" in the region of 6 million people. The Associated Press has reported that people are starving to death.
Legesse Tulu, a spokesperson for the Ethiopian government, stated that the U.N. flight was present in the area. However, he said that the U.N. and military aircraft had a "different direction" and were both there at the same time. It wasn't immediately known how close they came to one another.
Getachew Reda, a Tigray force spokesperson, said in a tweet that "our air defence units knew the U.N. aircraft was scheduled to land" and that "our guns were setting up the U.N. airplane to be hit with our guns."
A military spokesperson did not respond to questions.
Legesse stated that Friday's airstrikes in Mekele were directed at a former military training facility, which was being used by Tigray forces as a "battlenetwork hub". Residents claim they struck a field near Mekele University. Kindeya Gebrehiwot, a Tigray spokesperson, said that about a dozen people were injured.
In recent months, Ethiopia's government has accused humanitarian groups of supporting Tigray forces. Last month, it took the unusual step of exiling seven U.N. officials and accusing them of fabricating the Tigray crisis. Authorities conducted intrusive searches on U.N. flight attendants and took away medical cargo.
The U.N. claims that only 1% of the 5.2 million people in immediate need were provided food aid between Oct. 7-13. Connell of the U.N. stated that aid delivery has been halted by the U.N. airstrikes in Mekele, which began this week. He also said that not a single truck had entered Tigray since Monday.
Since November, thousands of people were killed in fighting between Tigray forces that once ruled the national government and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmad's current administration.
In recent months, Tigray forces have retaken Tigray and started fighting in neighboring Amhara-Afar regions. According to the U.N., more than 2,000,000 people have been displaced.
Connell stated that if conditions remain current, "our operations in Tigray will come to an abrupt halt in not so distant future".
Three children were killed and more than a dozen others were injured in the airstrikes in Mekele, which took place despite international calls for a ceasefire and threats of additional sanctions.
The government claimed that a strike was made against another Tigray military base near Mekele on Thursday. However, a Tigray spokesperson stated that the plane could not have hit targets because of air defenses.
On Wednesday, an airstrike struck an industrial complex that the government claimed was used by Tigray forces for weapons repair. A Tigray spokesperson denied this and stated that the compound was used to make cars and tractors. On Monday, two other airstrikes struck the city.
Tigray is still under a communications blackout that makes it difficult to verify claims. Meanwhile, areas of fighting in Amhara remain largely unreachable.
Reports of heavy fighting in Amhara are prompting the airstrikes. A Tigray force spokesperson claimed that advances had placed the government-held cities of Dessie, Kombolcha "within range" and prompted alarm.
Dessie is home to many people who fled violence further north. According to one resident, he saw many cars leave Dessie with mattresses, cooking equipment, and other household goods strapped to their roofs over the past few days. However, many displaced people remain stuck because they cannot afford to move.
He also mentioned numerous vehicles transporting troops north to front and the constant sounding of shelling. For fear of retribution, he spoke anonymously.