By Samuel Gebre and Simon Marks
Eritrean troops massacred hundreds of unarmed civilians in the northern Ethiopian town of Axum in November last year, killings that constituted war crimes, an Amnesty International probe has found.
The human rights group based its conclusions on interviews with 41 survivors of the attacks and witnesses who saw soldiers firing on people in the streets, as well as phone calls with residents of the town in the Tigray province. Respondents described extra-judicial executions, indiscriminate shelling and widespread looting as Ethiopian and Eritrean troops fought forces loyal to the region’s ruling Tigray People’s Liberation Front.
“The evidence is compelling and points to a chilling conclusion,” Deprose Muchena, Amnesty’s director for east and southern Africa, said in a report released on Friday. “Ethiopian and Eritrean troops carried out multiple war crimes in their offensive to take control of Axum.”
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered an incursion into Tigray after TPLF forces attacked a federal military camp in the region, the culmination of months of tension between national and regional authorities. While Abiy declared victory on Nov. 28, fighting is ongoing. Top Ethiopian officials have denied that Eritrean forces have been involved in the conflict and the Eritrean government has been silent on the matter.
Eritrean Minister of Information Yemane Meskel didn’t immediately respond to Bloomberg’s request for comment on Friday.
Amnesty said it presented its report to Eritrean authorities on Thursday and they didn’t immediately respond.
The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, separately, said it was aware of and is investigating the fighting in Axum that involved Eritrean soldiers and left civilians dead. The EHRC “is also investigating allegations of shelling in multiple places across Tigray,” it said in a statement.
Ethiopian and Eritrean forces indiscriminately shelled Axum and shot at those who tried to flee, before entering the town together, according to Amnesty. Witnesses identified trucks with Eritrean plates, saw troops wearing its military’s beige uniforms and speaking a distinctive Tigrinya dialect in the town, and described how they looted stores, public buildings and private homes, it said.
“Above and beyond that, Eritrean troops went on a rampage and systematically killed hundreds of civilians in cold blood, which appears to constitute crimes against humanity,” Muchena said. “This atrocity ranks among the worst documented so far in this conflict.”
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While witnesses supplied Amnesty with the names of more than 240 people who were killed in Axum, the rights group hasn’t been able to independently verify a death toll. A video and satellite images showed burials were conducted in the area around Dec. 13 that followed a large funeral.
Amnesty called for a United Nations-led investigation into violations in Axum, the prosecution of those responsible and compensation for the victims and their families.
Ethiopia’s government said it was aware that the federal police, prosecutors and the nation’s human rights commission were probing allegations of criminality in Axum, and it would take appropriate action based on their findings. It didn’t directly respond to Amnesty’s report.
“While tragic incidents and unfortunate events do occur in conflict situation, the government of Ethiopia does not condone any act that gratuitously puts the lives of civilians in danger,” it said in a statement on Thursday.
The conflict in Tigray has displaced hundreds of thousands of people, with more than 61,000 fleeing into neighboring Sudan. Ethiopian officials say they’ve provided aid to more than 3 million people, but UN agencies say they still don’t have access to most parts of Tigray.