NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) – Eritrean soldiers systematically killed “many hundreds” of people, the vast majority men, in a massacre in late November in the Ethiopian city of Axum in the Tigray region, Amnesty International said on Friday. The new report echoed the findings of an Associated Press story last week and cited more than 40 witnesses.
As pressure mounted on Ethiopia for what could be the deadliest massacre of the Tigray conflict, the prime minister’s office announced that “humanitarian agencies now have unlimited access to aid in the region.” He added that the government “welcomes international technical assistance to carry out investigations (on alleged abuses) and invites the possibility of collaborating in joint investigations.”
And yet the government claimed that the Amnesty report was based on “scant information” and said the human rights group should have visited the Tigray region. Amnesty said it asked the government for permission in December and never received a reply.
“As you know, no independent human rights monitors have been allowed into the region since the conflict began,” spokesman Conor Fortune said in an email to the AP.
Crucially, the head of the government-established Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, Daniel Bekele, says Amnesty’s findings “must be taken very seriously.” The commission’s own preliminary findings “indicate the killing of a still unknown number of civilians by Eritrean soldiers” in Axum, according to its statement.
The Amnesty report describes the soldiers shooting dead civilians as they fled, lining up the men and shooting them in the back, detaining “hundreds, if not thousands” of men for beating, and refusing to allow the afflicted to bury the dead. .
Over a period of approximately 24 hours, “Eritrean soldiers deliberately fired at civilians in the street and carried out systematic house-to-house searches, extrajudicially executing men and boys,” says the report released early Friday. “The massacre was carried out in retaliation for an earlier attack by a small number of local militiamen, joined by local residents armed with sticks and stones.”
The “mass execution” of Axum civilians by Eritrean troops may constitute crimes against humanity, the report says, calling for a United Nations-led international investigation and full access to Tigray for human rights groups, journalists and humanitarian workers. The region has been largely isolated since the fighting began in early November.
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Ethiopia’s federal government has denied the presence of soldiers from neighboring Eritrea, long an enemy of the now-fugitive leaders of the Tigray region, and the Eritrean government dismissed the AP story about the Axum massacre as “lies. scandalous. ” Eritrea’s Information Minister Yemane Gebremeskel said on Friday that his country “is outraged and categorically rejects the absurd allegations” in the Amnesty report.
But even senior members of the Ethiopia-appointed interim government in Tigray have acknowledged the presence of Eritrean soldiers and allegations of widespread looting and killings.
Ethiopia said the “alleged incident” in Axum “will have to be fully investigated.”
And Ethiopia’s ambassador to Belgium, Hirut Zemene, said in a webinar Thursday that the alleged November massacre was a “very unlikely scenario” and “we suspect it’s a very, very crazy idea.”
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No one knows how many thousands of civilians have been killed in the conflict between the Ethiopian and allied forces and those of the Tigray regional government, which had long dominated the Ethiopian government before Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took office in 2018. Humanitarian officials have warned that increasing numbers of people may be starving as access, while improving, remains restricted.
“Hostilities must cease immediately,” the European Union’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said in a statement in response to the Amnesty International report, adding that “the level of suffering suffered by civilians, including children , it’s hideous. “
The presence of Eritrean soldiers in Tigray has caused some alarm. The United States has repeatedly urged Eritrea to withdraw its soldiers and cited credible reports of “serious” human rights abuses.
On Saturday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the United States is “deeply concerned” by reports of atrocities.
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“The United States has repeatedly engaged the Ethiopian government on the importance of ending the violence, ensuring unhindered humanitarian access to Tigray, and allowing a full and independent international investigation of all reports of human rights violations, abuses, and atrocities.” Blinken said. in a sentence. “Those responsible for them must be held accountable.”
Witnesses to the Axum massacre told Amnesty International that Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers jointly took control of the city, but Eritreans carried out the killings and then carried out house-to-house raids of men and teenagers.
The bodies were strewn in the streets after the events of November 28 and 29, witnesses said.
“The next day, they did not allow us to pick up the dead. Eritrean soldiers said that the dead cannot be buried before our dead soldiers are buried,” one woman told Amnesty International. With hospitals looted or health workers fleeing, some witnesses said that several people died from their injuries due to lack of care.
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“Gathering the bodies and carrying out the funerals took days. Most of the dead appear to have been buried on November 30, but witnesses said that people found many additional bodies in the following days,” the new report says.
After obtaining permission from Ethiopian soldiers to bury the dead, witnesses said they feared the killings would resume at any moment, even as the bodies were piled up in horse-drawn carts and brought to churches for burial, to times in mass graves.
The AP spoke with a deacon at a church, the Church of St. Mary of Zion, who said he helped count the bodies, collected the identity cards of the victims and helped with burials. He believes that some 800 people died that weekend in the city.
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After being exposed for a day or more, the bodies had begun to rot, further traumatizing families and those gathered to help.
The new report says satellite images show “disturbed soil” next to churches.