The air strike happened as reports emerged of rebel advances in some parts of the northern region, where famine has been reported and atrocities documented.

An injured resident of Togoga, receives medical treatment at the Ayder referral hospital in Mekele, the capital of Tigray region, Ethiopia, on June 23, 2021
An injured resident of Togoga, receives medical treatment at the Ayder referral hospital in Mekele, the capital of Tigray region, Ethiopia, on June 23, 2021 (AFP)

The United Nations has called for an urgent investigation into air strike in Ethiopia's Tigray region that  killed at least 51 people and wounded more than 100 others.

The air strike on a busy market also left dozens of people missing in its aftermath survivors and emergency workers said on Wednesday, as a seven-month-old conflict surges in the war-torn region again.

Families rushed to a hospital in the regional capital Mekele as the casualties, including many children, arrived from nearby Togoga, where witnesses and medical personnel said a busy marketplace had been bombed Tuesday.

An official with Tigray's health bureau said that more than 100 other people were wounded, more than 50 seriously, and at least 33 people were still missing. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of concerns about retaliation.

The UN called for an urgent investigation into the strike, which has killed and wounded an as-yet undetermined number of people.

The carnage unfolded as ballot-counting was underway across much of the rest of Ethiopia following Monday's national election, but the conflict in Tigray prevented any voting there.

The air strike happened as reports emerged of rebel advances in some parts of the northern region, where famine has been reported and atrocities documented.

READ MORE: Air strike in Ethiopia’s Tigray kills dozens of people – witnesses

'From the air'

"I saw with my eyes the bodies of 58 people dead," said 47-year-old Negash Araya, who estimated 200 others were wounded when bombs fell around midday on Togoga, a market town some 30 kilometres (18 miles) northwest of Mekele.

Another survivor, Birhan Gebrehiwet, was selling drinks around lunchtime when explosions tore through the weekly market that attracts throngs of traders from far and wide.

"I am sure it came from the air," said the 20-year-old, whose house next to the market was destroyed by the blast.

She described seeing many dead and injured: "We were stepping on them and in their blood."

Relatives of one man who was seriously wounded and was being treated at a Mekele hospital said he had witnessed two explosions, both fired from aircraft.

AFP could not independently verify these accounts.

READ MORE: EU envoy claims Ethiopian officials vowed to 'wipe out' Tigrayans

Ambulances blocked

An emergency worker at a hospital in Mekele said about 30 people had so far been admitted – including many young children.

Among those rushed into Ayder Referral Hospital was Genet Tsegay, a 12-year-old girl, moaning in pain, her right hand mangled from the blast.

Her mother, Tsigabu Gebretinsae, said the explosion killed her 22-year-old son – but she did not have time to mourn with her daughter's life in the balance.

"I lost one child. Now, I cannot lose another," the 45-year-old mother of six told AFP.

She said many people in Togoga were killed: "There are still lots of people under the ruins," she said.

An emergency worker at the hospital said soldiers had prevented some of the wounded from leaving Togoga: "They risk death," he said.

One ambulance driver said he too had been stopped from driving to Togoga.

"I tried to leave Mekele four times today to try and help people, but the soldiers are not letting us go," he said.

READ MORE: UN document: Some 350,000 people in Ethiopia's Tigray in famine

International outrage

The UN said it was "deeply disturbed" by reports the army had blocked evacuations and called on Ethiopian authorities to conduct an urgent investigation.

"Attacks directed against civilians and indiscriminate attacks are prohibited," said acting assistant secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, Ramesh Rajasingham.

The United States said it was "gravely concerned" by the reported fatalities and called for an urgent investigation.

"We strongly condemn this reprehensible act," State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said if confirmed, the blocking of ambulances could amount to a violation of international law.

This bombing "adds to the appalling series of violations of international humanitarian law and human rights" in Tigray, he said.

The International Committee of the Red Cross, which helped bring the wounded to Mekele, said it was vital that victims of conflict receive unimpeded the life-saving they need.

Officials from Tigray's interim administration and the Ethiopian army did not immediately respond to AFP requests for comment about the attack.

READ MORE: How Ethiopia's civil war exploded from Mai Kadra town, a timeline

War and a peace prize

In November, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent troops into Tigray promising a swift campaign to oust its dissident ruling party.

The alliance against Tigray's renegade leadership followed peace overtures towards Eritrea made by Abiy that ended a long cold war between the neighbours and earned Abiy the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019.

In recent days, as votes were cast and counted across much of the vast nation of 110 million people, there were reports of rebel advances in Tigray.

They included the brief occupation of the key town of Adigrat in the far north, and Wukro, further south nearer Mekele, where heavy shelling was heard late Wednesday, residents told AFP.

The fighting in Tigray – and its impact on civilians – has damaged Abiy's standing as a peacemaker and reformer, but his administration has remained defiant in the face of international criticism.

On Monday, UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet expressed alarm at ongoing atrocities in the region, including sexual violence and extrajudicial killings.

Aid groups say that as a result of the fighting, 350,000 people face famine conditions in the northernmost region – an analysis the government disputes.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies