Eritrean Troops Killed ‘Hundreds’ In Ethiopia Massacre, Says Amnesty

Eritrean Army reinforcements head 17 May 2000 toward Akurdet, 60 kms from the western city of Barentu, some 180 kms from the capital Asmara, which is under heavy attack from Ethiopian forces that are now deep inside Eritrea. Eritrea has been embroiled in a bitter 24 month border war with neighbouring Ethiopia. The latest fighting started 12 May 2000. Ethiopia said late 17 May 2000 that its forces had captured Das in Eritrea during heavy fighting.
Eritrean Army reinforcements head 17 May 2000 toward Akurdet, 60 kms from the western city of Barentu, some 180 kms from the capital Asmara. AFP

 

Eritrean soldiers fighting across the border in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region killed hundreds of people in a massacre last year in a likely crime against humanity, Amnesty International said Friday.

The rights watchdog spoke to survivors of the atrocities and used satellite images to piece together the bloody events of last November in the ancient town of Axum in a new report.

“The evidence is compelling and points to a chilling conclusion. Ethiopian and Eritrean troops carried out multiple war crimes in their offensive to take control of Axum,” said Deprose Muchena of Amnesty International.

“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.

“This atrocity ranks among the worst documented so far in this conflict.”

Tigray has been the theatre of fighting since early November 2020, when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced military operations against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), accusing them of attacking federal army camps.

He declared victory after pro-government troops took the regional capital Mekele in late November, though the TPLF vowed to fight on, and clashes have persisted in the region.

Tigray has been without internet and difficult to access since the start of the conflict, making claims and counter-claims of violence hard to confirm.

The presence of Eritrean troops in Ethiopia is widely documented but has been denied by Addis Ababa and Asmara.

Eritrea fought a brutal border war with Ethiopia in 1998-2000, back when the TPLF dominated Ethiopia’s governing coalition.

Abiy won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 in large part for initiating a rapprochement with Eritrea, whose President Isaias Afwerki and the TPLF remain bitter enemies.

‘Killing randomly’

Amnesty said it had spoken to 41 survivors and witnesses of the violence who said that on November 19, 2020, Ethiopian and Eritrean military forces took control of Axum “in a large-scale offensive, killing and displacing civilians with indiscriminate shelling and shooting.”

“In the nine days that followed, the Eritrean military engaged in widespread looting of civilian property and extrajudicial executions.”

Witnesses said the Eritrean forces were easily identifiable, via their vehicles, language and unique ritual facial scars, while they also openly declared themselves as such.

The worst violence unfolded after a small group of pro-TPLF militiamen attacked the soldiers’ base on 28 November and they retaliated, leaving the town strewn with bodies.

“The Eritrean soldiers came into the city and started killing randomly,” said a 22-year-old man who had wanted to bring food to the militia, who he described as young and barely knowing how to fight.

Residents told Amnesty that many victims in Axum carried no weapons and were running away from the soldiers when they were shot.

“I saw a lot of people dead on the street. Even my uncle’s family. Six of his family members were killed. So many people were killed,” said a 21-year-old male resident.

The next day the soldiers allegedly shot at those trying to move the bodies, while carrying out house-to-house raids.

One man told Amnesty he saw soldiers line up six men and shoot them from behind in the street outside his house.

Hundreds buried

The organisation said it had collected the names of more than 240 of the victims, but could not independently verify the overall death toll. However, corroborating testimonies and evidence made it plausible that hundreds had died.

“Residents estimate that several hundred people were buried in the aftermath of the massacre, and they attended funerals at several churches where scores were buried,” said the report.

Satellite imagery showed signs of mass burials near two of the town’s churches.

“As a matter of urgency, there must be a UN-led investigation into the grave violations in Axum. Those suspected of responsibility for war crimes or crimes against humanity must be prosecuted in fair trials and victims and their families must receive full reparation,” said Muchena.

“We repeat our call on the Ethiopian government to grant full and unimpeded access across Tigray for humanitarian, human rights, and media organisations.”

AFP

15 UN Peacekeepers From Tigray Refuse To Return To Home

UN peacekeepers’ uniforms.

 

 

Fifteen members of a contingent of Ethiopian peacekeepers in South Sudan, originally from the Tigray region, refused to return to Ethiopia Monday, the UN said, citing their right to seek asylum if they fear for their lives.

Tigray has been the theater of fighting since early November 2020, when Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced military operations against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), accusing them of attacking federal army camps.

He declared victory after pro-government troops took regional capital Mekele in late November, though the TPLF vowed to fight on, and clashes have persisted in the region, hampering efforts to deliver sorely-needed humanitarian assistance.

“This morning, 169 members of the Ethiopian contingent were due to rotate out of Juba and (be) replaced by fresh contingents, a part of a normal rotation,” said UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric during his daily press conference.

“We’re trying to get the details, but I do understand about 15 members of the contingent chose not to board the flight at the Juba airport… They’ve asked to stay,” he said, adding that “any person in need of international protection has the right to seek asylum.”

“They are receiving support from the South Sudanese Ministry of Refugee Affairs,” Dujarric continued, and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is “aware” of the situation and in contact with South Sudanese authorities.

The UNHCR defends the principle of “non-refoulement,” or allowing refugees or people seeking asylum not to return to their country of origin “if they feel their lives or freedom could be threatened,” Dujarric said.

Ethiopia’s Tigray Region Hit By Power Blackout

An Ethiopian man, who fled Ethiopia’s Tigray conflict as a refugee, watches the rising Moon on top of a hill at Um Raquba refugee camp in Gedaref, eastern Sudan, on December 1, 2020. (Photo by Yasuyoshi CHIBA / AFP)

 

Ethiopia’s conflict-torn northern Tigray region has been hit by an electricity blackout, the government said Wednesday, blaming the outage on the ousted ruling party in the semi-autonomous zone.

Tigray has been the theatre of fighting since early November 2020, when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced military operations against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), accusing them of attacking federal army camps.

He declared victory after pro-government troops took regional capital Mekele in late November, though the TPLF vowed to fight on, and clashes have persisted in the region, hampering efforts to deliver sorely-needed humanitarian assistance.

In a press statement, the state utility firm Ethiopia Electricity Power (EEP) said TPLF “remnants” had attacked a high-voltage line carrying electricity to Mekele, “causing total electricity blackout in the region”.

The statement didn’t mention the date of the alleged attack, however a resident of Mekele told AFP the power had gone out on Tuesday evening.

The resident said fear was growing in the capital of an offensive by the TPLF, with security forces reportedly digging trenches on the outskirts of the city.

He said tension was high, with red and yellow flags associated with the TPLF and red and yellow balloons cropping up around the city in recent days.

TPLF spokesman Getachew Reda on Tuesday gave an interview to a US-based television station, denying they were planning an imminent offensive.

“Currently, we’re not in a hurry to free our cities. The cities are our own. We will do the utmost effort to ensure our cities can’t be centres of destruction,” Getachew told the Tigrai Media House (TMH).

Separately on Wednesday, The Tigray council of religious institutions — representing Ethiopian Orthodox, Catholic, Islamic and evangelical churches — issued a statement calling for the withdrawal of forces from Eritrea and neighbouring Amhara regional state from the region.

Eritrea and Ethiopia deny that Eritrean soldiers are involved in the Tigray conflict.

But their presence has been described by residents, aid workers and even some civilian and military officials in Tigray.

“The Ethiopian federal government should force the Eritrean and Amhara region security forces to leave the Tigray region. These two forces have committed widespread rapes, looting, killings as well as engaged in the destruction of infrastructure and religious sites,” the statement said.

It also condemned the partial destruction of al-Nejashi Mosque, one of the oldest mosques on the continent, and referred to alleged damage to Debre-Damo, one of the region’s famed clifftop monasteries, believed to date back to the sixth century.

Tigray has been cut off from the internet since the start of the conflict.

The United Nations’ humanitarian agency OCHA said last week that “much of the rural areas, where 80 percent of the population lived prior to the conflict, remain cut off from humanitarian assistance.”

Kenya’s Locust Hunters On Tireless Quest To Halt Ancient Pest

It has been over a year since the worst desert locust infestation in decades hit the region, and while another wave of the insects is spreading through Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya, the use of cutting edge technology and improved co-ordination is helping to crush the ravenous swarms and protect the livelihoods of thousands of farmers. (Photo by Yasuyoshi CHIBA / AFP)

 

As dawn breaks in central Kenya, a helicopter lifts off in a race to find roosting locusts before the sun warms their bodies and sends them on a ravenous flight through farmland.

Pilot Kieran Allen begins his painstaking survey from zebra-filled plains and lush maize farms, to dramatic forested valleys and the vast arid expanses further north, his eyes scouring the landscape for signs of the massed insects.

The chopper suddenly swings around after a call comes in from the locust war room on the ground: a community in the foothills of Mount Kenya has reported a swarm.

“I am seeing some pink in the trees,” his voice crackles over the headphones, pointing to a roughly 30-hectare (75-acre) swathe of desert locusts.

Reddish-pink in their immature — and hungriest — phase, the insects smother the tips of a pine forest.

Allen determines that nearby farms are at a safe distance and calls in a second aircraft which arrives in minutes to spray the swarm with pesticide.

On the ground, having warmed to just the right temperature, the thick cloud of locusts fills the air with a rustling akin to light rainfall. But a few hours from now, many will be dead from the effect of the poison.

Last month alone, Allen logged almost 25,000 kilometres (15,500 miles) of flight — more than half the circumference of the world — in his hunt for locusts after a fresh wave of insects invaded Kenya from Somalia and Ethiopia.

Like other pilots involved in the operation — who have switched from their usual business of firefighting, tourism, or rescuing hikers in distress — he has become an expert on locusts and the dangers they pose.

“Those wheat fields feed a lot of the country. It would be a disaster if they got in there,” he says pointing to a vast farm in a particularly fertile area of Mount Kenya.

Second wave

Desert locusts are a part of the grasshopper family which form massive swarms when breeding is spurred by good rains.

They are notoriously difficult to control, for they move up to 150 kilometres (90 miles) daily. Each locust eats its weight in vegetation daily and multiplies twenty-fold every three months.

The locusts first infested the east and Horn of Africa in mid-2019, eventually invading nine countries as the region experienced one of its wettest rainy seasons in decades.

Some countries like Kenya had not seen the pest in up to 70 years and the initial response was hampered by poor co-ordination, lack of pesticides and aircraft, according to Cyril Ferrand, a Nairobi-based expert with the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

A slick new operation to combat a second wave of pests has improved control and co-operation in Kenya, Ethiopia, and parts of Somalia.

A picture taken on February 9, 2021, shows a local farmer walking in a swarm of desert locust in Meru, Kenya.  (Photo by Yasuyoshi CHIBA / AFP)

Locust war room

In Kenya, the FAO has teamed up with the company 51 Degrees, which specialises in managing protected areas.

It has rejigged software developed for tracking poaching, injured wildlife and illegal logging and other conservation needs to instead trace and tackle locust swarms.

A hotline takes calls from village chiefs or some of the 3,000 trained scouts, and aircraft are dispatched.

Data on the size of the swarms and direction of travel are shared with the pilots as well as governments and organisations battling the invasion in Somalia, Kenya, and Ethiopia.

“Our approach has completely been changed by good data, by timely data, and by accurate data,” said 51 Degrees director Batian Craig.

He said in Kenya the operation had focused on a “first line of defense” in remote and sometimes hostile border areas, which had successfully broken up massive swarms coming in from Ethiopia and Somalia before they reach farmland further south.

In a complex relay, when the wind shifts and the swarms head back into Ethiopia, pilots waiting on the other side of the border take over the operation.

Southern and central Somalia is a no-go zone due to the presence of Al-Shabaab Islamists and the teams can only wait for the swarms to cross over.

Ferrand told AFP that in 2020 the infestation affected the food supply and livelihoods of some 2.5 million people, and was expected to impact 3.5 million in 2021.

He said while a forecast of below average rainfall and the improved control operation could help curb the infestation, it was difficult to say when it will end.

But with dizzying climate fluctuations in the region, “we need to start looking ahead to what needs to be in place if we start to see more frequent infestations of desert locusts.”

While the size of swarms have decreased this year, each one is “affecting someone’s livelihood along the way,” said Craig.

In a Meru village, desperate farmer Jane Gatumwa’s 4.8-hectare farm of maize and beans is seething with ravenous locusts.

She and her family members run through the crops yelling and banging pieces of metal together in a futile bid to chase them away.

“They destroy everything, they have been here for like five days. I feel bad because these crops help us to get school fees and also provide food.”

“Now that there’s nothing left we will have a big problem.”

Gunmen Kill More Than 100 People In Western Ethiopia: Rights Body

Ethiopia, in the Horn of Africa, is a rugged, landlocked country split by the Great Rift Valley.

 

Gunmen killed more than 100 people in an attack on Wednesday in western Ethiopia, the national human rights body said, the latest in a series of deadly assaults in the area.

The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC), a government-affiliated but independent body, said in a statement late on Wednesday that “more than 100 people have been killed in fires and shooting perpetrated by armed men” in the Benishangul-Gumuz region.

The commission said survivors had “disturbing photo evidence” of the attack on sleeping residents in Metekel zone, which began in the early hours of Wednesday and continued until afternoon.

Ethnic violence over land and resources has been a persistent problem in Ethiopia under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, often seen as a backlash to the Nobel Peace prize winner’s efforts to lead democratic reforms in Africa’s second-most populous nation.

Five officials were arrested on suspicion of playing a part in the trouble, the regional government said in a statement without giving further details of possible charges.

At least 36 survivors were being treated for bullet and arrow wounds in a hospital about 90 kilometres (56 miles) from where the attack occurred, the commission said.

“In addition to the damage inflicted on people’s lives and bodies, crops have been set alight. One victim told us he saw 18 such fires,” the statement said.

There were no security forces in the area at the time, the commission said.

Some of the victims said they knew their assailants, the commission said, adding that humanitarian aid should be sent to assist the displaced and wounded.

The region is home to ethnic Shinasha, Oromo and Amhara, the commission said, the latter two the largest and second largest ethnic minorities, respectively, in Ethiopia.

Some Amhara leaders have asserted ownership of the Metekel zone — claims that have inflamed tensions with ethnic Gumuz in the area.

Ethnic attacks

Abiy visited the Metekel zone on Tuesday and met residents at a town-hall style meeting, posting on Twitter: “The desire by enemies to divide Ethiopia along ethnic & religious lines still exists.”

Western Ethiopia has suffered a spate of horrific attacks in recent months.

At least 34 people were slaughtered in an attack on a bus in the same Metekel zone in November.

Twelve others were killed in a separate attack in the zone in October, and 15 died in a similar assault in late September.

In October, Abiy told lawmakers that fighters responsible for those killings were receiving training and shelter in neighbouring Sudan and that Khartoum’s assistance was needed to stabilise the area.

Opposition politicians — notably from the Amhara ethnic group — have sounded the alarm about what they say is a targeted campaign by ethnic Gumuz militias against ethnic Amhara and Agew living in Metekel.

They claimed at the time that more than 150 civilians had been killed in the attacks, figures that could not be independently verified.

There is no known link between the violence in Benishangul-Gumuz and military operations in northern Tigray region, which have killed thousands, according to the International Crisis Group think tank, and sent more than 50,000 people fleeing over the border into Sudan.

 

AFP

Ethiopia Unrest: UN Seeks Donations To Help Refugees In Tigray

A 4-year-old Ethiopian refugee girl poses for a photograph at the Village Eight transit centre which hosts Ethiopian refugees who fled the Ethiopia's Tigray conflict near the Ethiopian border in Gedaref, eastern Sudan, on December 2, 2020. Yasuyoshi CHIBA / AFP
A 4-year-old Ethiopian refugee girl poses for a photograph at the Village Eight transit centre which hosts Ethiopian refugees who fled Ethiopia’s Tigray conflict near the Ethiopian border in Gedaref, eastern Sudan, on December 2, 2020. Yasuyoshi CHIBA / AFP

 

The United Nations on Tuesday appealed for $156 million to help the tens of thousands of refugees who have fled fighting in Ethiopia’s Tigray, again requesting full humanitarian access to the conflict-hit northern region.

UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet said her office had received numerous allegations of rights abuses during weeks of fierce fighting that followed Ethiopia’s government launching a military offensive against Tigray’s dissident leaders on November 4.

Those abuses include “artillery strikes on populated areas, the deliberate targeting of civilians, extra-judicial killings and widespread looting,” Bachelet said in a statement.

“These reports point to failure by the parties to the conflict to protect civilians,” she said, adding that due to a lack of access, the UN was not able to verify reports on the ground.

READ ALSO: Sudan, Ethiopia Start Border Talks One Week After Clash

The UN refugee agency released a separate statement on Tuesday calling for urgent funding to address a “full-scale humanitarian emergency” sparked by the conflict.

It said that over the last six weeks more than 52,000 refugees have fled Tigray to a remote area in neighbouring Sudan.

That number does not include 96,000 Eritrean refugees who were already in Tigray before the fighting started and have been feared to be running low on food.

The $156 million requested by the UN along with 30 humanitarian partners would allow aid to continue during the first half of 2021, UN spokesman Andrej Mahecic said.

The funding would help the partners “meet the immense humanitarian needs in eastern Sudan and to ensure full preparedness throughout the region,” he told a press conference in Geneva.

Only 30 percent — $46 million — of the requested funds have been received so far.

Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, last year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, declared victory against the regional authorities from the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in late November.

However, the TPLF has vowed to fight on and in her statement Bachelet cited reports that clashes have continued.

The UN has repeatedly requested unimpeded humanitarian access across the region, and Bachelet did so again on Tuesday, while saying that two assessment missions were able to enter Tigray the day before.

Bachelet added that the reports of abuses underscored “the need for independent human rights monitors to be given access to Tigray to adequately assess the human suffering resulting from the conflict, verify allegations and to help ensure accountability for violations.”

 

AFP

Sudan, Ethiopia Start Border Talks One Week After Clash

A handout picture provided by Sudan’s Prime Ministers office on December 20, 2020 shows Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (L) meeting with his Sudanese counterpart Abdalla Hamdok on the sidelines of the 38th Extraordinary Summit of the Assembly of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) in Djibouti.  (Photo by Office of Sudan’s Prime Minister / AFP)

 

Sudan and Ethiopia started talks Tuesday to demarcate their border, Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok’s office said, one week after a deadly clash in a disputed area.

The delegations were led by Ethiopia’s deputy prime minister and foreign minister, Demeke Mekonnen, and Sudan’s minister in charge of the cabinet, Omar Manis.

Hamdok and his Ethiopian counterpart Abiy Ahmed had on Sunday agreed on the talks on the margins of a Djibouti summit of regional bloc the Intergovernmental Authority on Development.

The two-day talks in Khartoum come a week after Ethiopian forces reportedly ambushed Sudanese troops along the border, leaving four dead and more than 20 wounded.

Sudan has since deployed troops to the Al-Fashaqa border region, the site of sporadic clashes.

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The most contested region there is a 250 square kilometre (100 square mile) area where Ethiopian farmers cultivate fertile land on territory claimed by Sudan.

The area borders Ethiopia’s troubled Tigray region, where fighting broke out last month, causing tens of thousands of Ethiopians to flee and cross into Sudan.

Sudan and Ethiopia share a 1,600-kilometre (nearly 1,000 mile) border.

In 1902 a deal to draw up the frontier was struck between Great Britain, the colonial power in Sudan at the time, and Ethiopia but the agreement lacked clear demarcation lines.

The last Sudan-Ethiopia border talks were held in May in Addis Ababa but another meeting scheduled for the following month was cancelled.

Meetings on border demarcation were previously held between 2002 and 2006.

Addis Ababa has been keen to downplay the recent deadly border incident, saying it did not threaten the relationship between the two countries.

A foreign ministry spokesman in Addis Ababa told AFP Ethiopian security forces had “repelled a group of (Sudanese) low-ranking officers and farmers, who had encroached on Ethiopian territory”.

AFP

Ethiopia Offers $250,000 For Help In Finding Dissident Tigray Leaders

In this file photo taken on March 28, 2018 Abiy Ahmed, Chairman of Oromo Peoples' Democratic Organization (OPDO) looks on in Addis Ababa. Samuel Gebru / AFP
In this file photo taken on March 28, 2018 Abiy Ahmed, Chairman of Oromo Peoples’ Democratic Organization (OPDO) looks on in Addis Ababa. Samuel Gebru / AFP

 

Ethiopia on Friday offered a reward in exchange for information that could help locate leaders of the Tigray region’s ruling party, who have been the target of a major military offensive.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, last year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, announced the military campaign against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) on November 4, saying it came in response to TPLF-orchestrated attacks on federal army camps.

Abiy declared victory after federal forces took the regional capital Mekele in late November, but the UN says clashes persist in the region and TPLF leaders remain on the run.

The military will pay 10 million Ethiopian birr (roughly $250,000 / 205,000 euros) to “any person who knows the exact location of the TPLF junta leadership”, the Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation quoted Lieutenant General Asrat Denero, head of the military’s community information department, as saying Friday.

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Asrat also provided a hotline where citizens could give tips.

Two days after Mekele fell, Abiy told lawmakers that federal forces were monitoring TPLF leaders closely from “the situation room” and would apprehend them soon.

He said TPLF leaders had fled west of the city, though Debretsion Gebremichael, president of Tigray when the conflict started, told AFP at the time that Abiy had the location wrong.

Debretsion and other TPLF leaders have been unreachable for nearly two weeks.

On November 13 federal police announced arrest warrants for Debretsion and 63 other TPLF leaders.

It was not immediately clear Friday if the reward offer applied to all of them.

The fighting in Tigray has left thousands dead, according to the International Crisis Group (ICG) think tank, and sent tens of thousands of refugees streaming across the border into Sudan.

The UN has been lobbying — so far unsuccessfully — for unfettered access to the region to provide humanitarian assistance.

On Thursday it announced a $35.6 million emergency aid package for civilians caught up in the conflict.

AFP

‘Terrified’ Survivors Recount Attacks On Civilians In Tigray

Ethiopian refugees who fled fighting in Tigray province are pictured at a reception centre in Sudan’s eastern Gedaref province, on November 17, 2020. (Photo by Ebrahim HAMID / AFP)

 

The first shells landed before dawn, crashing through tin-roofed mud homes and sending Jano Admasi’s neighbours fleeing for the cacti-dotted hills around her village in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region.

Jano, a soft-spoken woman in her sixties, tried to escape as well, running with her eldest son, 46-year-old Miskana, along a dirt road leading out of the village.

But on the way, she says, they encountered Ethiopian government soldiers who turned them around, forcing them into a nearby house with two other terrified families.

What happened next, described by three eyewitnesses but denied by the Ethiopian government, casts doubt on Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s claim that his military offensive in Tigray has been prosecuted with special care for civilian lives.

In an apparent rage, the soldiers accused Miskana and two other men in the group of aiding the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), whose leaders are the target of the military operations ordered last month.

“They asked us who we were, and we said we are just farmers and elderly women,” Jano told AFP. “They came back again and said ‘Get out’, and separated the men from the women.”

The soldiers made the men including Miskana sit down and, before Jano fully realised what was happening, shot them dead with Kalashnikov rifles.

A 15-year-old boy who leapt in front of a bullet in a futile bid to save his father was also killed.

The killings — which took place on November 14, 10 days after Abiy announced the offensive — represent just one incident of civilian suffering in Bisober, a farming village home to roughly 2,000 people in southern Tigray.

In the three days it took federal forces to wrest control of the village from the TPLF, 27 civilians died, according to local officials and residents: 21 from shelling and six in extrajudicial killings.

The government has tightly restricted access to the region, making it difficult to assess the toll of a conflict the UN warns is “spiralling out of control”.

But AFP recently obtained exclusive access to southern Tigray, where residents of multiple towns and villages accused both government and pro-TPLF combatants of, at best, putting civilians in harm’s way — and, at worst, actively targeting them.

Survivors told AFP they dreaded how many civilians could have died across Tigray.

“If in just this one area you have this much destruction,” said Bisober resident Getachew Abera, “then imagine what might have happened generally.”

The military did not respond to a request for comment.

Ethiopia’s democratisation minister Zadig Abraha told AFP that any claims that Ethiopian soldiers killed civilians were “false”.

Village warfare

In retrospect, Bisober residents say, the first sign of the conflict came seven months ago, when members of the Tigray Special Forces took over the village’s elementary school, which had been emptied because of the coronavirus pandemic.

By early November, when the first shots were fired, some 250 pro-TPLF troops were encamped there, digging trenches behind classrooms and storing weapons in what was once the principal’s office.

The Tigrayan fighters’ decision to base themselves in the centre of Bisober helps explain the carnage that ensued, said Getachew Nega, the village administrator.

“The TPLF lost hope and they came and put heavy weapons and other weapons in this village. They shouldn’t have done this,” Getachew said.

Once the fighting started, Tigrayan combatants broke into abandoned homes from which they fired on Ethiopian soldiers, witnesses said, inviting massive damage.

Across Bisober, shelling from both sides tore open the walls of concrete homes and destroyed mud homes altogether, leaving only metal roofs behind.

“The conflict was a sudden act. Both parties had their missions, and we were caught in between,” said Said Idriss, a member of a newly-formed command post trying to restore order in the area.

“They could have asked the people to leave earlier.”

‘Like spilt water’

Today Bisober is relatively calm, with many residents labouring in nearby sorghum fields, trying to salvage this year’s harvest.

Security is provided by special forces from the neighbouring Afar region, who use rags to clean their guns while lazing under acacia trees in a makeshift camp on the outskirts of the village.

Abiy declared victory in Tigray in late November after federal forces reportedly seized the regional capital Mekele, but the TPLF has vowed to fight on and the UN has recently reported persistent clashes throughout the region.

Human rights organisations are calling for thorough, independent investigations of the violence — though Abiy is resisting the idea.

Government spokesman Redwan Hussein told a press conference last week that outside investigators would be allowed in only “when the Ethiopian government feels that it failed to investigate” on its own.

Ethiopia “doesn’t need a babysitter,” he added.

Jano, for her part, has little time for such debates.

She can’t shake the memory of watching soldiers shoot her son in front of her, and of waiting in the street with his body for two full days, unsure what to do.

“We didn’t cry. We were too terrified. We were trembling with fear,” she said.

Instead of worrying about whether the perpetrators will be held to account, she said she is focused on trying to rebuild her life and care for Miskana’s three children.

“I already lost my son and he’s not coming back,” she said.

“It’s like spilt water, you cannot get it back.”

UN Raises Concern Over Eritrean Refugees Caught In Ethiopia Conflict

Maabel Abraham, an Eritrean refugee who fled Ethiopia’s Tigray conflict, poses after an interview with AFP at the Border Reception Centre in Hamdayit, eastern Sudan, on December 8, 2020. According to the UN, some 49,000 Ethiopians have been forced by the conflict in Tigray to flee to Sudan, over 45 per cent of them children.
Yasuyoshi CHIBA / AFP

 

The United Nations and rights groups have expressed growing alarm over the plight of Eritrean refugees caught in the conflict in Ethiopia, warning their safety and survival are at great risk.

The UN refugee agency UNHCR said late Friday it had received “an overwhelming number of disturbing reports” of refugees being killed or kidnapped and forcibly returned to Eritrea, which borders Ethiopia’s battle-scarred Tigray region.

“If confirmed, these actions would constitute a major violation of international law,” said Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

Ethiopia has restricted access to Tigray, where aid groups fear a humanitarian disaster is unfolding, and the UN has not been able to reach four refugee camps housing nearly 100,000 Eritreans since fighting began between federal and regional forces on November 4.

 

READ ALSO: California Seeks To Join Justice Department Antitrust Case Against Google

 

“I am strongly urging the government of Ethiopia to continue to uphold their responsibility towards refugees under international law, and to ensure the protection and safety of all refugees in the country,” Grandi said.

The International Rescue Committee said Friday that one of its staff members was killed last month at a refugee camp for Eritreans in Tigray. The Danish Refugee Council, which also assists the Eritreans, said three of its guards were killed but did not specify where.

– ‘Harm and hunger’ –

Humanitarian agencies have warned of drastic supply shortages and appealed for urgent access to assist the Eritreans and an estimated 600,000 others in Tigray who were dependent on food rations before the conflict even began.

A government communications blackout combined with tight restrictions on access to Tigray has made it very difficult for aid agencies to confirm the whereabouts and safety of their staff, as well as the refugees and civilians they support.

Ethiopia said Friday it was returning “misinformed” Eritrean refugees making their way south to Addis Ababa back to the camps in Tigray to receive aid and live “lawfully and peacefully”.

“Forcibly sending Eritrean refugees back to camps in Tigray places them at unnecessary risk of harm and hunger,” Laetitia Bader, Horn of Africa director for Human Rights Watch, said Saturday.

“Eritrean refugees shouldn’t be forced to be in a conflict zone where humanitarian assistance is still restricted and international access to the refugee camps still cut off.”

The UN migration agency IOM on Friday denied that its buses were used to transport refugees “to an unknown destination” and rejected allegations that Eritreans were being held at one of its transit centres in Addis Ababa and processed for forcible return.

The International Organization for Migration said it was “extremely concerned” by reports of Eritreans being relocated against their will and “does not under any circumstances conduct the forced return of migrants and refugees”.

It said one of its three transit centres in Addis Ababa was “taken over” by Ethiopian authorities on December 3 and that IOM “had no management authority, oversight or involvement in any activities undertaken by the authorities in the centre since that time”.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, the winner of last year’s Nobel Peace Prize, on Friday, said his government would be in charge of handling the humanitarian response in Tigray.

An agreement last week to allow the UN and aid agencies access to Tigray foundered before a new deal was brokered Wednesday.

In a sign of the depth of tensions over where and how aid agencies should operate in Tigray, a UN team trying to visit a camp for Eritrean refugees on November 6 was shot at by Ethiopian forces and briefly detained.

Abiy declared the fighting in Tigray over on November 28. Thousands have been killed, according to the International Crisis Group think tank, and around 50,000 people have fled to refugee camps across the border in Sudan.

-AFP

Four Aid Workers Killed In Ethiopia Conflict

A member of the Ethiopian Defense Forces walks away from a damaged military truck abandoned on a road near the village of Ayasu Gebriel, East of the Ethiopian city of Alamata, on December 10, 2020. EDUARDO SOTERAS / AFP
A member of the Ethiopian Defense Forces walks away from a damaged military truck abandoned on a road near the village of Ayasu Gebriel, East of the Ethiopian city of Alamata, on December 10, 2020. EDUARDO SOTERAS / AFP

 

Two international aid agencies on Friday said four staff members were killed during last month’s fighting in Ethiopia’s troubled northern Tigray region.

The Danish Refugee Council (DRC) reported the deaths of three security guards, while the International Rescue Committee (IRC) said one of its staff members had been killed.

An estimated 600,000 people in Tigray were dependent on food aid before the fighting began,  including 96,000 refugees from neighbouring Eritrea.

READ ALSO: Ethiopia Insists It Will Control Aid To Troubled Tigray

When Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered troops into Tigray on November 4, following alleged attacks by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) forces, aid workers were left stranded and vulnerable.

A communications blackout imposed by the government combined with tight restrictions on access to Tigray has made it very difficult for aid agencies to confirm the whereabouts and safety of their staff in the area.

DRC said it was “deeply saddened to confirm the death of three colleagues,” adding that its “workers are at the forefront of the humanitarian imperative to provide assistance to those in need.

“Sadly, due to the lack of communications and ongoing insecurity in the region, it has not yet been possible to reach their families,” a statement said.

In another statement, IRC said it “regrets to confirm the killing of a staff member in Hitsats Refugee Camp in Shire”.

“Our in-country staff are the very heart of our work and are key in our ability to provide support and assistance to our clients,” it said.

“Communication with the area is extremely difficult and we are still working to gather and confirm the details surrounding the events.”

Despite Abiy’s declaration of victory on November 28, the UN and aid agencies have said fighting continues.

 

AFP

Ethiopia Insists It Will Control Aid To Troubled Tigray

Ethiopia’s newly elected Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed

 

Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed insisted Friday that his government would take the lead in delivering aid to Tigray, where his troops have been fighting forces loyal to the regional government.

Nearly four weeks after ordering soldiers to dislodge the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which rules the northern region, Abiy declared victory on November 28.

The United Nations and aid agencies have been unable to access the region since the start of fighting and are deeply worried over the plight of civilians and refugees — as well as their own staff on the ground — and have called for unfettered access.

Abiy, the winner of last year’s Nobel Peace Prize, said Friday that his government was capable of providing humanitarian assistance, and would be in charge of what aid was delivered and where.

“The delivery of assistance lies within a coordination framework under the federal government’s overall authority,” he said.

Abiy added that, because of ongoing insecurity, “access will be coordinated in consultation with the federal government.”

Any suggestion his government was not “committed to ensuring that vulnerable communities in Tigray region are provided the necessary humanitarian assistance” was, Abiy said, part of a “misinformation campaign”.

In his statement, Abiy listed truckloads of food and medicine he said was being sent to Tigray.

– Aid without ‘discrimination’ –

An agreement last week to allow the UN and aid agencies access to Tigray foundered, deepening international alarm.

Ethiopia has bridled at suggestions that outsiders might play a leading role in assisting a population that suffered under nearly a month of conflict between federal and regional forces.

The government has repeatedly insisted that its “rule of law operations” in Tigray are aimed solely at the TPLF leadership, not Tigrayan civilians.

Nevertheless, thousands have been killed since fighting began, according to the International Crisis Group think tank, and around 50,000 people have fled to refugee camps across the border in Sudan.

This week, the UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet said the conflict was having an “appalling impact on civilians,” including multiple reports of ethnic massacres and ethnic targeting.

Announcing a fresh agreement with Ethiopia on humanitarian access on Wednesday, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres promised the deal will “make sure that there is full access to the whole of the territory, but emphasised that this must happen “without any kind of discrimination.”

– Risky assistance –

In a sign of the depth of tensions over where and how aid agencies should operate in Tigray, a UN team was shot at by Ethiopian forces on Sunday and briefly detained, a government spokesman said this week.

He said the team ignored instructions and drove through checkpoints before being fired on, and blamed them for the incident, saying they had embarked on “a kind of adventurous expedition”.

The risks faced by international aid agencies were underscored on Friday when the Danish Refugee Council confirmed the deaths of three of its security guards last month, and the International Rescue Committee (IRC) said one staff member had been killed.

An estimated 600,000 people in Tigray were dependent on food aid before the fighting began, including 96,000 refugees from neighbouring Eritrea.

A government communications blackout combined with tight restrictions on access to Tigray has made it very difficult for aid agencies to confirm the whereabouts and safety of their staff in the area, as well as the refugees and civilians they support.

“Communication with the area is extremely difficult and we are still working to gather and confirm the details surrounding the events,” the IRC said.

Despite last month’s victory declaration, the UN and aid agencies have said fighting continues — but Abiy dismissed these reports as false.

“Suggestions that humanitarian assistance is impeded due to active military combat… is (sic) untrue and undermines the critical work undertaken by the National Defence Forces to stabilise the region,” he said.

Abiy characterised the ongoing hostilities as “sporadic gunfire… (that) need not be misconstrued as active conflict.”

The communications blackout and restrictions make it impossible to independently verify claims regarding the nature of any ongoing fighting.