NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) – Soldiers from Eritrea systematically killed “many hundreds” of people, mostly men, in a massacre in late November in the Ethiopian city of Axum in the Tigray region, Amnesty International said Friday. The new report repeated the results of an Associated Press story last week, citing more than 40 witnesses.
As pressure on Ethiopia escalated into what could be the deadly massacre of the Tigray conflict, the Prime Minister’s Office announced that “humanitarian agencies have now gained unlimited access to aid in the region.” It added that the government “welcomes international technical assistance to conduct the investigation (alleged misuse) and calls on the potential for cooperation on joint investigations.”
And yet, the government claimed that the Amnesty report was based on “sparse information” and said the human rights group should have visited the Tigray region. Amnesty said it requested permission from the government in December and never received a response.
“As you know, no independent human rights monitors have been allowed in the region since the conflict began,” spokesman Conor Fortune said in an email to the AP.
It is crucial that the head of the government-established Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, Daniel Bekele, says that the Amnesty results “should be taken very seriously.” The commission’s own preliminary findings “indicate the killing of an as yet unknown number of civilians by Eritrean soldiers” in Axum, its statement said.
The Amnesty report describes the soldiers who shot civilians as they fled, lined up men and shot them in the back, rounded up “hundreds, if not thousands” of men for battle and refused to let the mourners bury the dead.
Over a period of about 24 hours, “Eritrean soldiers deliberately shot civilians in the street, conducting systematic house-to-house searches and conducting out-of-court men and boys,” the report, released early Friday, said. “The massacre was carried out in retaliation for a previous attack by a small number of local militiamen, who were joined by local residents armed with sticks and stones.”
The report says that the “mass execution” of Axum civilians by Eritrean troops may constitute crimes against humanity, and it calls for a UN-led international investigation and full access to Tigray for human rights groups, journalists and humanitarian workers. The region has been largely cut off since the fighting began in early November.
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The Ethiopian federal government has denied the presence of soldiers from neighboring Eritrea, which has long been an enemy of the Tigray region’s now fleeing leaders, and the Eritrean government dismissed the AP story of the Axum massacre as “scandalous lies.” Eritrean Information Minister Yemane Gebremeskel said on Friday that his country was “outraged and categorically denies the outrageous allegations” in the Amnesty report.
But even high-ranking members of the Ethiopian-appointed interim government in Tigray have acknowledged the presence of Eritrean soldiers and accusations of widespread looting and killing.
Ethiopia said the “alleged incident” in Axum “needs to be thoroughly investigated.”
And Ethiopia’s ambassador to Belgium, Hirut Zemene, told a webinar on Thursday that the alleged November massacre was a “very unlikely scenario” and “we suspect it is a very, very crazy idea.”
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No one knows how many thousands of civilians were killed in the conflict between Ethiopian and Allied forces and Tigray’s regional government, which had long dominated the Ethiopian government before Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took office in 2018. Humanitarian officials have warned that a growing number of people may starve to death as access while improving is still limited.
“Hostilities must end immediately,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said in a statement in response to the Amnesty International report, adding that “the level of suffering that civilians, including children, endure is appalling.”
The presence of Eritrean soldiers in Tigray has caused some alarm. The United States has repeatedly called on Eritrea to withdraw its troops, citing credible reports of “serious” human rights abuses.
On Saturday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the United States was “seriously concerned” about reports of atrocities.
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“The United States has repeatedly committed the Ethiopian government to the importance of ending the violence, ensuring unhindered humanitarian access to Tigray and allowing a full, independent, international inquiry into all reports of human rights abuses, violations and atrocities,” Blinken said in a declaration. “Those responsible for them must be held accountable.”
Witnesses from the Axum massacre told Amnesty International that Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers jointly took control of the city, but the Eritreans carried out the killings and then carried out house-to-house raids on men and teenage boys.
The bodies were left strewn in the streets after the events of Nov. 28 and 29, witnesses said.
“The next day they did not allow us to pick the dead. The Eritrean soldiers said you can not bury the dead until our dead soldiers are buried,” a woman told Amnesty International. When hospitals were looted or health workers fled, some witnesses said a number of people died from their wounds due to lack of care.
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“Gathering the bodies and performing the funerals took days. Most of the dead appear to have been buried on November 30, but witnesses said people found many more bodies in the ensuing days,” the new report said.
After getting permission from Ethiopian soldiers to bury the dead, witnesses said they feared the killings would resume at any moment, even as they piled corpses on horse-drawn carriages and led them to churches for burial, sometimes in mass graves.
AP spoke to a deacon in a church, St. The Church of Mary of Zion, which said he helped count the bodies, collected the victims’ identity cards and helped with funerals. He believes about 800 people were killed that weekend around town.
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After being left 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 recently show “disturbed ground” next to churches.