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Medics attend the scene of an airstrike in Mekele, capital of the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia, on Sept. 14.The Associated Press

Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers and warplanes have launched a massive assault on a small Tigrayan city, provoking horror from international leaders as the death toll climbs.

Air strikes on Shire, a city of 100,000 people about 250 kilometres northwest of the Tigrayan capital Mekelle, have killed and injured aid workers and others in recent days. Tens of thousands of troops have been deployed by the Ethiopian, Eritrean and Tigrayan armies around the city, making it one of the biggest battles in the world today.

Some analysts said the Tigrayan defences are close to collapse, raising fears of atrocities against civilians if the city falls to the Ethiopian army and its Eritrean allies. An attempt at African-led peace negotiations appears to have failed dismally, lacking even an agreement on the timing of the talks.

“The staggering human cost of this conflict should shock the world’s conscience – and the risk of additional atrocities and loss of life is intensifying, particularly around Shire,” said Samantha Power, a genocide expert who heads the U.S. Agency for International Development, in a tweet on Sunday.

The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, said he was “horrified” by the continuous violence and the targeting of civilians in Shire.

As many as a million troops, including 100,000 Eritrean conscripts, are reportedly engaged in the fighting in Tigray, a region in northern Ethiopia that has fought for autonomy from the central government in the two-year war.

Tigray is already suffering from a blockade by Ethiopian forces, cutting off its communications and humanitarian aid. Even before the latest offensive began in August, researchers estimated that as many as 500,000 Tigrayans had perished from the war and related causes.

Up to a million people are now on the brink of famine, Ms. Power said. She denounced the “indiscriminate attacks” by Ethiopian and Eritrean forces in Shire and warned that they are also attacking camps for thousands of displaced people. If they capture the camps, “there is significant risk of further assaults and killings,” she said.

Alex de Waal, an Ethiopia expert at Tufts University in the United States, said the casualties on all sides are “horrifyingly high.” While the Ethiopian army reportedly suffered 90,000 casualties in a month, it and its Eritrean allies have a huge advantage in numbers and heavy equipment in a war of attrition against the Tigrayans, he wrote in an analysis on Friday.

Another Ethiopia expert, Kjetil Tronvoll of Oslo New University College in Norway, said the Ethiopian and Eritrean armies are using “massive human wave attacks.” He compared it to the trench-warfare tactics of the First World War. “The carnage is horrendous,” he tweeted on Saturday. “The perpetuation of war crimes is standard operating procedure.”

An aid worker from the International Rescue Committee was among three people killed in an air strike on Shire on Friday, and another aid worker and three other civilians were injured, according to an IRC statement on the weekend. It was the latest in a wave of air strikes and artillery bombardments that have killed countless civilians in Tigray in recent weeks, forcing nearly half a million to flee their homes.

The IRC said its staff member was a health and nutrition worker who was delivering lifesaving aid to women and children at the time of the attack. “The IRC is heartbroken over the loss of our colleague,” it said.

Canadian diplomats in Ethiopia denounced the air strike. “We condemn the attack in Shire which killed and injured humanitarian workers and civilians,” the Canadian embassy said on Sunday. “International humanitarian law must be respected and unimpeded humanitarian access must be allowed.”

Similar statements were issued by the United States, the United Nations, the EU and the African Union. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is “gravely concerned” about the escalating warfare and the “devastating impact on civilians” in what is already a dire humanitarian situation, his spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric said in a statement, describing the conflict as “catastrophic.”

Senator Bob Menendez, chairman of the U.S. Senate foreign relations committee, said he will push for sanctions against the perpetrators of war crimes and genocide in Ethiopia.

His counterpart in the U.S. House of Representatives foreign affairs committee, Gregory Meeks, said the Eritrean troops are destabilizing Ethiopia. “The shocking deprivation of humanitarian assistance in Tigray and neighbouring regions is one of the deadliest weapons of this war,” he said in a statement. “The warning signs for additional atrocities in Ethiopia are flashing red again.”

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