UN warns of war crimes in spiralling Ethiopia conflict
The United Nations warned Friday of possible war crimes in Ethiopia’s northern region of Tigray, after 10 days of fighting that the country’s prime minister claimed had his enemy “in the final throes of death”.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, winner of last year’s Nobel Peace Prize, ordered military operations in Tigray last week, shocking the international community which fears the start of a long and bloody civil war.
Hundreds are reported to have been killed, some in a gruesome massacre reported by Amnesty International, and thousands have fled fighting and air strikes in Tigray, whose leaders Abiy accuses of seeking to destabilise the country.
UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet called for a full investigation into the report of mass killings in the town of Mai-Kadra, where Amnesty said it had “digitally verified gruesome photographs and videos of bodies strewn across the town or being carried away on stretchers.”
“If confirmed as having been deliberately carried out by a party to the current fighting, these killings of civilians would of course amount to war crimes,” she said in a statement.
Amnesty said it had not been able to confirm who was responsible for the killings, however witnesses blamed forces backing the region’s ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
Witnesses also reported the identity cards of some victims indicated they were from the Amhara region, an area with a long history of tensions with Tigrayans, notably over land.
Thousands of Amhara militiamen have deployed to the Tigray border to fight alongside federal forces.
Tigrayan leader Debretsion Gebremichael told AFP on Friday the accusations were “baseless”.
Abiy says his military operation came in response to attacks on two federal military camps by the TPLF, which once dominated Ethiopian politics and claims it has been sidelined and targeted under Abiy.
The party denies carrying out the attacks.
Long-running tensions between Abiy and the TPLF hit a new low in September when Tigray pressed ahead with its own elections, insisting Abiy was an illegitimate leader after national polls were postponed due to the coronavirus.
‘Surrounded on all sides’
On Friday Abiy addressed the region, especially its soldiers, urging them to “rise up” and side with the national army.
“This mischievous force is surrounded on all sides. It is a force in its final throes of death. Your children are suffering death and injuries on the frontline,” he said in the Tigrinya language in a speech broadcast on Facebook.
“Rise up against the clique or defect to the Ethiopian Defense Forces, use the opportunity given to you by your country in the next two or three days… save yourself.”
A communications blackout in Tigray has made it difficult to verify competing claims on the ground, but Abiy has vowed to deliver a decisive win “in a relatively short period of time”.
“This is a daydream, just a daydream,” Debretsion said. “We are proud people who can defend ourselves. This is a burial ground for invaders.”
Bachelet warned that if the conflict continues “there is a risk this situation will spiral totally out of control, leading to heavy casualties and destruction, as well as mass displacement within Ethiopia itself and across borders.”
“I am also extremely alarmed at reports of cuts to essential water and electricity supplies, in addition to the communications blackout and blocking of access by road and air.”
‘Too big to manage’
There are mounting worries about how Tigray’s population is faring after intensified fighting and several rounds of air strikes that Abiy’s government says targeted fuel and weapons depots.
Thousands have already crossed the border into neighbouring Sudan, while Debretsion said hundreds of thousands had been displaced within Tigray.
He also said civilians had been killed in government air strikes in the regional capital Mekele, and in the city of Adigrat close to the border with Eritrea.
“People are running in every corner. So the most important consequence of the conflict currently is displacement. Of course there are casualties, but we don’t have the numbers. This is too big to manage,” Debretsion said.
Ethiopian state media reported that an arrest warrant had been issued for Debretsion and other TPLF leaders.
On Friday, an African Union official confirmed the body had replaced its head of security, an ethnic Tigrayan, after Ethiopia’s defence ministry complained he was “assumed to be not honest” and could jeopardise the relationship between Ethiopia and the AU, which is headquartered in the capital Addis Ababa.
AU chief Moussa Faki Mahamat complied with the request, and a letter from his office dated Wednesday ordered the official, Gebre-egzhiaber Mebratu Melese, be terminated “with immediate effect.”
War crimes feared in Ethiopia’s Tigray conflict
The 10-day conflict in Tigray region has killed hundreds, sent refugees flooding into Sudan, and raised fears it may suck in Eritrea or force Ethiopia to divert troops from an African force opposing al Qaeda-linked militants in Somalia.
It may also blemish the reputation of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for a 2018 peace pact with Eritrea and had won plaudits for opening Ethiopia’s economy and easing a repressive political system.
“There is a risk this situation will spiral totally out of control, leading to heavy casualties and destruction, as well as mass displacement within Ethiopia itself and across borders,” U.N. rights chief Michelle Bachelet said via a spokesman.
A massacre of civilians reported by Amnesty International, if confirmed as committed by a party to the conflict, would amount to war crimes, she added.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed accuses the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which rules the mountainous region of more than five million people, of treason and terrorism.
Federal troops say the TPLF rose against them last week but that they have since survived a siege and recaptured the west of the region. With communications cut and media barred, there has been no independent confirmation of the state of the fighting.
The TPLF says Abiy’s government has systematically persecuted Tigrayans since he took office in April 2018 and terms the military operations an “invasion”.
Federal troops have been carrying out air strikes and there has been fighting on the ground since Wednesday of last week. Ethiopia denied a TPLF claim that federal jets had knocked out a power dam.
NEW TIGRAY LEADER
Abiy, who comes from Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group the Oromo, said parliament named former Addis Ababa university academic and deputy minister for science and higher education Mulu Nega, 52, as the new leader of Tigray.
News also came on Friday that the African Union (AU) had dismissed its security head, an Ethiopian national, after Abiy’s government accused him of disloyalty.
The bloc’s chair Moussa Faki Mahamat ordered the removal of Gebreegziabher Mebratu Melese in a Nov. 11 memo seen by Reuters after Ethiopia’s defence ministry wrote with concerns.
Horn of Africa expert Rashid Abdi said Gebreegziabher was Tigrayan and his departure from the AU post was part of the Abiy government’s efforts to sideline prominent Tigrayans.
“The purging of competent Tigrayan officials in the midst of the conflict is not good for the morale of the (security and military) services,” he said, referring also to other removals of Tigrayan officials since the military offensive began.
“It also plays into the notion that this is essentially an ethnic war masked as a centre-periphery power struggle.”
However, Abiy this week urged Ethiopians to ensure Tigrayans are not targeted. “We all must be our brother’s keeper by protecting Tigrayans from any negative pressures,” he said.
His opening of political space since taking office in 2018 exposed ethnic fractures in Africa’s second most populous nation of 115 million people. Before the Tigray flare-up, clashes killed hundreds and uprooted hundreds of thousands.
An internal U.N. security report said Ethiopian police visited an office of the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP) in Amhara region to request a list of Tigrayan staff.
The local police chief told them of “the order of identifying ethnic Tigrayans from all government agencies and NGOs”, the report said, underlining the conflict’s ethnic undertones. Amhara borders Tigray and its rulers back Abiy.
The United Nations told the police they do not identify staff by ethnicity, according to the report. There was no immediate comment from the Amhara regional police or government.
Rights group Amnesty International said on Thursday that scores and possibly hundreds of civilians were stabbed and hacked to death in the region on Nov. 9, citing witnesses who blamed the TPLF. Debretsion denied that to Reuters.
More than 14,500 Ethiopian refugees – half of them children – have gone to Sudan since fighting started and aid agencies say the situation in Tigray is becoming dire. There are also concerns about a mass displacement of thousands of Eritrean refugees at a camp in Ethiopia.
Ethiopia’s national army is one of Africa’s largest. But its best fighters are from Tigray and much of its hardware is also there, under the Northern Command.
Ethiopia hosts the AU headquarters in Addis Ababa. Nearly 4,400 Ethiopian troops serve in its Somalia peacekeeping force.
About 500 Ethiopian forces deployed in Somalia separately from the AU peacekeeping force returned home in early November, three sources told Reuters.
“A protracted internal conflict will inflict devastating damage on both Tigray and Ethiopia as a whole, undoing years of vital development progress. It could, in addition, all too easily spill across borders, potentially destabilizing the whole sub-region,” added the United Nations’ Bachelet.