Both sides claim gains in Ethiopia war; Tigrayans accused of massacre

Published November 25, 2020
Ethiopian refugees fleeing from the ongoing fighting in Tigray region, queue for water, at the Fashaga camp on November 24. — Reuters
Ethiopian refugees fleeing from the ongoing fighting in Tigray region, queue for water, at the Fashaga camp on November 24. — Reuters

ADDISABABA: Ethiopia’s state-appointed rights watchdog accused a Tigrayan youth group on Tuesday of killing hundreds of civilians as federal and local forces both claimed advances in a three-week war in the country’s mountainous north.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government said enemy soldiers were surrendering as it advanced towards the regional capital, but the Tigrayans reported they were resisting and had destroyed a prestigious army division.

The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission published findings into a Nov 9 attack in Mai Kadra in southwest Tigray — first reported by Amnesty International — where it said a youth group called Samri killed at least 600 people of the minority Amhara and Wolkait ethnic groups in the town.

They were beaten to death, stabbed, set on fire and strangled with ropes, the report said, though some residents protected neighbours by hiding them in homes. The commission accused local forces of colluding in the “massacre”.

The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) was not immediately available but has previously denied involvement.Since fighting began on Nov 4, hundreds have died, more than 41,000 refugees have fled to Sudan, and there has been widespread destruction and uprooting of people from homes.

The war has spread to Eritrea, where the Tigrayans have fired rockets, and also affected Somalia where Ethiopia has disarmed several hundred Tigrayans in a peacekeeping force fighting Al Qaeda-linked militants.

Abiy’s government said many Tigrayan combatants had responded to a 72-hour ultimatum to lay down arms before a threatened offensive against Mekelle city, with half a million inhabitants. The deadline expires on Wednesday.

The battle-hardened TPLF, which had ruled the region of more than 5 million people, gave a different version, saying their troops were keeping federal forces at bay and scoring victories.

Their spokesman Getachew Reda said an important army unit — which he named as the 21st mechanised division — was destroyed in an assault at Raya-Wajirat led by a former commander of that unit now fighting for the TPLF. The prime minister’s spokeswoman Billene Seyoum denied that.

TPLF leader Debretsion Gebre­michael has disputed the government version that Mekelle is encircled at a roughly 50km (30 mile) distance.The UN Security Council had been due to hold informal talks on Tuesday over Tigray, but that was postponed to give AU envoys time to travel to Ethiopia, diplomats said.

Abiy, who won the Nobel Peace Prize last year for ending a standoff with Eritrea, has said he will not negotiate with the TPLF though he does plan to receive the AU envoys.

His predecessor, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, criticised mediation efforts by “well-intentioned outsiders” that he said obscured crimes by the TPLF and overestimated their importance in Ethiopian society.

“The key problem in the international community’s approach to Ethiopia is the assumption of moral equivalence, which leads foreign governments to adopt an attitude of false balance and bothsidesism” between the federal and Tigrayan sides, he wrote in Foreign Policy magazine.

Published in Dawn, November 25th, 2020

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