Eritrean soldiers fighting across the border in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region killed hundreds of people in a massacre last year in a likely crime against humanity, Amnesty International said on Friday.
The rights guard spoke to survivors of the atrocities and used satellite images to bring together the bloody events of November last year in the ancient city of Axum in a new report.
“The evidence is convincing and points to an incredible conclusion. Ethiopian and Eritrean troops committed several war crimes in their offensive to take control of Axum,” said Deprose Muchena of Amnesty International.
“In addition, Eritrean troops stormed and systematically killed hundreds of cold-blooded civilians, appearing to be crimes against humanity.
“This atrocity is among the worst documented to date in this conflict.”
Tigray has been the battlefield since the beginning of November 2020, when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced military operations against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and accused them of attacking federal army camps.
He declared victory after pro-government troops captured the regional capital of Mekele in late November, although the TPLF promised to continue fighting and clashes continued in the region.
Tigray has been without internet and difficult to access since the beginning of the conflict, making allegations and counterclaims of violence difficult to confirm.
The presence of Eritrean troops in Ethiopia is widely documented but has been denied by Addis Ababa and Asmara.
Eritrea fought a brutal border war with Ethiopia in 1998-2000, back when the TPLF dominated Ethiopia’s ruling coalition.
Abiy won the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize largely to begin a rapprochement with Eritrea, whose president Isaias Afwerki and the TPLF are still bitter enemies.
Amnesty said it had spoken to 41 survivors and witnesses to the violence, saying that on November 19, 2020, Ethiopian and Eritrean military forces took control of Axum “in a large-scale offensive, killing and displacing civilians with indiscriminate shelling and firing.”
“For the next nine days, the Eritrean military carried out extensive looting of civilian property and extrajudicial executions.”
Witnesses said the Eritrean forces were easy to identify, via their vehicles, language and unique ritual facial scars, while also openly declaring themselves to be such.
The worst violence took place after a small group of pro-TPLF militiamen attacked the soldiers’ base on November 28 and they withdrew, leaving the city strewn with bodies.
“The Eritrean soldiers entered the city and started killing randomly,” said a 22-year-old man who wanted to bring food to the militia, which he described as young and barely knew how to fight.
Residents told Amnesty that many victims in Axum did not carry any weapons and ran away from the soldiers when they were shot.
“I saw many people dead on the street. Even my uncle’s family. Six of his family members were killed. So many people were killed,” said a 21-year-old male resident.
The next day, the soldiers shot at those who were trying to move the bodies while carrying out house-to-house raids.
A man told Amnesty International that he saw soldiers line up six men and shoot them from behind on the street outside his house.
The organization said it had collected the names of more than 240 of the victims, but could not independently verify the total number of deaths. But corroborating testimony and evidence made it probable that hundreds had died.
“Residents estimate that several hundred people were buried in the aftermath of the massacre, and they attended funerals in several churches where many were buried,” the report said.
Satellite images showed signs of mass burials near two of the city’s churches.
“As an urgent matter, there must be a UN-led investigation into the serious violations in Axum. Those suspected of responsibility for war crimes or crimes against humanity must be prosecuted in fair trials and victims and their families must be fully compensated,” Muchena said.
“We reiterate our call on the Ethiopian Government to provide full and unlimited access to the Tigray for humanitarian, human rights and media organizations.”