International pressure increased on Tuesday on Ethiopia’s warring parties to end the fighting and protect civilians in Tigray, where the army says it has surrounded the capital before a threatened bombing.
Forces loyal to Tigray’s ruling party have been battling Ethiopian troops in the northern region for nearly three weeks, triggering a refugee run, civilian atrocities and fears of wider instability in the Horn of Africa.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, last year’s winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, on Sunday gave the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) 72 hours to surrender – an ultimatum rejected by the leader of the dissident region, who has said his people are “ready to die” for their homeland.
While the deadline awaits, the UN Security Council held its first meeting on the crisis, despite disagreements between European and African members over whether the closed door should take place.
The Ethiopian army says tanks are within 60 kilometers of the regional capital Mekele, where it has promised a “no mercy” attack on TPLF forces.
“The very aggressive rhetoric from both sides of the fight for Mekele is dangerously provocative and risks already exposing and intimidating civilians to serious danger,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet.
Amnesty International called on Ethiopia not to use artillery and airstrikes in Mekele and appealed for both sides to consider the city’s half a million inhabitants and the many more who seek refuge there from fighting elsewhere.
“Deliberately attacking civilians and civilian objects is prohibited under international humanitarian law and constitutes war crimes,” said Deprose Muchena, head of Amnesty International’s offices in eastern and southern Africa.
The government said on Tuesday that “a large number of Tigray militias and special forces” had capitulated after Abiy’s 72-hour ultimatum.
The TPLF, for its part, said on Monday that it had directed an army battalion and taken responsibility for a rocket attack on Bahir Dar – the capital of the Amhara region south of Tigray – where local forces are fighting alongside Ethiopian troops.
Tigray is still under a communications shutdown and media access to the region has been limited, making it difficult to independently verify claims from both sides.
“End this conflict”
Abiy has resisted growing calls for mediation since ordering troops, tanks and warplanes for Tigray on November 4 in response to what he said were attacks on federal military camps organized by the TPLF.
The African Union (AU), headquartered in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, has sent three former African presidents as special envoys to try to mediate talks on the Tigray crisis.
A spokesman for an Ethiopian committee handling the conflict said on Monday that the government would meet the envoy “as a matter of respect” but completely ruled out negotiations with the TPLF.
Tuesday’s virtual meeting of the UN Security Council to discuss the crisis was in doubt shortly after African countries withdrew.
But diplomats from France, Britain, Belgium, Germany and Estonia eventually forced the talks to continue, with the support of the United States.
“At some point, we have to put it on the agenda, even if the Africans do not like it,” a European diplomat told AFP on condition of anonymity, stressing the growing impatience over the lack of Security Council action in the weeks ahead. -long strife.
The US National Security Council on Monday called for mediation and extended its support for the AU’s diplomatic effort “to end this tragic conflict now”.
The fighting has already driven more than 40,000 people into Sudan and forced many more to flee the Tigray. Hundreds have reportedly been killed, although the true extent of death and displacement is not known.
The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, a government-affiliated but independent body, said on Tuesday that at least 600 people had been slaughtered in a “race” in the city of Mai-Kadra on November 9.
A local youth group in Tigrayan, with the help of police and militias, “killed hundreds of people, beat them with batons / sticks, stabbed them with knives, machetes and axes and strangled them with ropes,” the commission said in a report.
Tigrayan refugees from Mai-Kadra, who have fled to Sudan, have blamed government forces for the assassination.
Long-running tensions between Addis Ababa and the TPLF boiled over in September as Tigray continued with regional elections in defiance of the federal government, which declared the vote illegal.