NAIROBI, Kenya – Ethiopian officials and allied militiamen are leading a systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing in Tigray, the war-torn region in northern Ethiopia, according to an internal US government report obtained by The New York Times.
The report, written earlier this month, documents in stark terms a land of ransacked homes and deserted villages where tens of thousands of people are missing.
Fighters and officials from Ethiopia’s neighboring Amhara region, who entered Tigray in support of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, are “deliberately and efficiently making western Tigray ethnically homogeneous through the organized use of force and violence. bullying, “says the report.
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“Entire villages were severely damaged or completely wiped out,” the report says.
In a second report, released on Friday, Amnesty International said that Eritrean soldiers had systematically killed hundreds of Tigray civilians in the ancient city of Axum over a 10-day period in November, shooting some of them in the streets.
The worsening situation in Tigray, where 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner Abiy launched a surprise military offensive in November, is shaping up to be the first major test of the Biden administration in Africa. Former President Donald Trump paid little attention to the continent and never visited it, but President Joe Biden has promised a more engaged approach.
In a call with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta on Thursday, Biden mentioned the Tigray crisis. The two leaders discussed “the deterioration of the humanitarian and human rights crisis in Ethiopia’s Tigray region and the need to prevent further loss of life and guarantee humanitarian access,” a White House statement said.
But so far, Biden and other American officials have been reluctant to openly criticize Abiy’s conduct in the war, while European leaders and United Nations officials, concerned by reports of widespread atrocities, have been increasingly francs.
On Tuesday, a European Union envoy, Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto, told reporters that the situation in Tigray was “very out of control” after returning from a fact-finding trip to Ethiopia and Sudan. The bloc suspended $ 110 million in aid to Ethiopia at the start of the conflict, and last month EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell warned of possible war crimes in Tigray, saying the crisis was “unsettling” the whole region.
Ethiopia often dismisses critics of its campaign in Tigray as the puppets of its enemies in Tigray. But on Friday afternoon, in response to Amnesty International’s report, the Abiy office said it was ready to assist in an international investigation into the atrocities in Tigray. The government “reiterates its commitment to allow for a stable and peaceful region,” it said in a statement.
The Abiy office also claimed that Ethiopia has given “unrestricted” access to international aid groups in Tigray, in contrast to UN officials who estimate aid groups may reach 20% of the region due to restrictions imposed by the government.
New US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Ahmed by phone on February 4 and urged him to allow humanitarian access to Tigray, the State Department said.
Alex de Waal, an expert on the Horn of Africa at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, said it is time for the United States to urgently focus on the Tigray crisis, before more atrocities are committed and the humanitarian crisis is reeling. towards a famine.
“What is needed is political leadership at the highest level, and that means the United States,” he said.
When the United States takes over the presidency of the UN Security Council in March, De Waal said, it should use that position to put international pressure on belligerents to step back from a ruinous conflict.
Abiy launched the Tigray campaign on November 4 after months of tension with the regional ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, which ruled Ethiopia with tight control for nearly three decades until Abiy came to power in 2018.
But many of the war’s worst abuses have been attributed not to the Ethiopian military or the TPLF, whose armed wing is now known as the Tigray Defense Forces, but to the irregular and undeclared forces that have rallied behind the campaign. military of Abiy.
Within weeks of the conflict, the first reports came in that soldiers from Eritrea, Ethiopia’s staunch rival until the two countries reached a peace agreement in 2018, had quietly crossed into Tigray to aid overloaded federal forces. of Abiy.
In western Tigray, ethnic fighters from Amhara, a region with a long rivalry with Tigray, were flooded, quickly helping Abiy capture the area.
Now it is Eritreans and Amhara fighters who face the most serious charges, including rape, looting and massacres that experts say could constitute war crimes.
The United States government report on the situation in western Tigray, an area now largely controlled by Amhara militias, documents in vivid terms what it describes as an apparent campaign to drive out the ethnic population of Tigray under the mantle of war.
The report documents how, in several cities, Tigrayans were attacked and their houses looted and burned. Some had fled to the mountain; others crossed illegally into Sudan; and others had been detained and forcibly relocated to other parts of Tigray, according to the report.
In contrast, cities with a predominantly Amharan population were thriving, with bustling shops, bars and restaurants, according to the report.
The US report is not the first accusation of ethnic cleansing since the Tigray crisis erupted. But it does highlight how US officials are quietly documenting those abuses and denouncing their superiors in Washington.
The looming specter of mass hunger is also driving the sense of urgency over Tigray. At least 4.5 million people in the region are in urgent need of food aid, according to the Tigray Emergency Coordination Center, which is run by the Ethiopian federal government. Ethiopian officials say some people have already died.
A Tigray regional government document dated February 2 obtained by The Times indicates that 21 people died of starvation in the eastern Tigray district of Gulomokeda. Such figures could be just the tip of the iceberg, aid officials warned.
“Today it could be one, two or three, but after a month it means thousands,” Abera Tola, president of the Ethiopian Red Cross, told reporters earlier this month. “After two months, it will be tens of thousands.”
However, political outrage over Tigray, especially among European lawmakers, is being fueled by the growing tide of accounts of human rights abuses.
Amnesty International’s report released on Friday states that Eritrean soldiers conducted house-to-house searches in Axum in November, shot civilians in the street and carried out extrajudicial executions of men and boys. When the shooting stopped, residents who tried to remove the bodies from the street were attacked, the report says.
Amnesty said the massacre was likely a crime against humanity. Eritrea’s information minister, Yemane G. Meskel, rejected the report, calling it “transparently unprofessional.”
Axum, a city of ruins and ancient churches, has great significance for followers of the Ethiopian Orthodox faith. When Eritrean soldiers relented and allowed the bodies to be collected, hundreds piled into churches, including the Church of St. Mary of Zion, where many Ethiopians believe the ark of the covenant, said to contain the tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments. – is hosted.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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