Scores of civilians killed in knife massacre in Ethiopia, say reports

Members of Amhara region militias head to face the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, named by some as responsible for the killings. Photograph: Tiksa Negeri/Reuters

By Jason Burke

Amnesty International says it has confirmed killings in town of Mai Kadra, Tigray Scores, possibly hundreds of civilians have reportedly been massacred with knives and machetes in Tigray, the restive northern region of Ethiopia where forces loyal to the local administration and the national military are engaged in fierce clashes.

Amnesty International says that according to witnesses, the victims were stabbed and hacked to death in the town of Mai Kadra four days ago. The campaign group said it had not been able to independently confirm who was responsible for the killings but witnesses reported that forces loyal to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which is in power in the province, may have committed the killings after they suffered defeat from the federal EDF forces.

“We have confirmed the massacre of a very large number of civilians, who appear to have been day labourers in no way involved in the ongoing military offensive. This is a horrific tragedy whose true extent only time will tell as communication in Tigray remains shut down,” said Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s director for east and southern Africa.

The Guardian has viewed photographic evidence, which appears to corroborate the reports, that shows dozens of corpses laid out on rope beds and flatbed trucks. The reports will fuel an increasingly bitter conflict, which may stoke ethnic and other tensions across Ethiopia, Africa’s second most populous country.

Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, launched military operations in Tigray after he accused local authorities of attacking a military camp in the region and attempting to loot military assets. The TPLF denies the attack and has accused the prime minister of concocting the story to justify deploying the offensive.

Airstrikes and ground combat between government forces and the TPLF have since killed hundreds, sending refugees pouring into Sudan and raising international concern over the willingness of Abiy, Africa’s youngest leader, who won a Nobel peace prize last year, to risk a lengthy civil war. In a letter to the Guardian, 39 academics based in the UK and specialising in Ethiopia expressed their concern at the ongoing military confrontation and called for London “to break its silence and use all diplomatic means at its disposal in support of an immediate end to the hostilities and finding a way to resolve the underlying conflict.”

“Over the past two years, we have been watching [Ethiopia] oscillate between hopeful optimism and deadly conflict, and these latest developments represent a serious escalation of violence that threatens to drag Ethiopia into a civil war with devastating consequences for its people, its economy and regional stability,” the letter reads.

Amnesty quoted testimony from three people who said they had been told by survivors of the massacre that the attackers were members of Tigray Special Police Force and other TPLF members who entered the town after a clash with national forces and militia from the neighbouring Amhara province.

“Amnesty International has not yet been able to confirm who was responsible … but has spoken to witnesses who said forces loyal to the TPLF were responsible for the mass killings, apparently after they suffered defeat from the federal EDF forces,” it said.

Tigray’s leader Debretsion Gebremichael, who chairs the TPLF, denied his forces were involved in the killings. “This is unbelievable … this should be investigated,” Debretsion said in a text message to Reuters, accusing Abiy of “creating facts on [the] ground”. There was no immediate response to the Amnesty report from the Ethiopian government.

With communications down and media barred, independent verification of such incidents and the status of the conflict is extremely difficult. The TPLF dominated Ethiopia’s governing coalition for decades before Abiy came to power in 2018. He won last year’s Nobel peace prize for ending a war with neighbouring Eritrea.

The sweeping political reforms the 44-year-old former soldier pushed through won wide praise, but have allowed old ethnic and other grievances to surface. Tigrayan leaders have complained of being unfairly targeted in corruption prosecutions, removed from top positions and blamed for the country’s problems.

The postponement of national elections due to the Covid-19 pandemic aggravated tensions and when parliamentarians in Addis Ababa, the capital, voted to extend officials’ mandates, Tigrayan leaders went ahead with regional elections in September that Abiy’s government deemed illegal. Both sides have access to heavy weapons, armour and considerable stocks of ammunition, and observers have warned that a lengthy conflict is possible.

More than 11,000 Ethiopian refugees have crossed into Sudan since fighting started and humanitarian organisations say the situation in Tigray is deteriorating. Even before the conflict, 600,000 people there were reliant on food aid. About 7,000 of those crossing have arrived at Hamdayat in Sudan’s Kassala state, with another 4,000 arriving at Luqdi in al-Qadarif state. Most of them are Tigrayan and about 45% are female, said the UN.

There is little sign of any moves to end the conflict. On Friday, Ethiopia’s parliament appointed a new head of Tigray region, a day after Ethiopia’s parliament stripped 39 members of the TPLF, including Gebremichael, of immunity from prosecution. Ethiopia has long been seen as a cornerstone of US strategic interests in the Horn of Africa region.

On Thursday, the Republican Senator for Idaho Jim Risch, chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, warned that the risk of the conflict in Ethiopia descending into civil war was “a real, present, and immediate danger to regional stability, US national security interests, and, most importantly, the safety and welfare of the Ethiopian people and Ethiopia’s democratic transition”.

“The United States and the international community must continue to direct engagement to ensure all sides commit to an immediate ceasefire, protecting all civilians, providing prompt humanitarian access, restoring internet and phone access, and pursuing a peaceful resolution through dialogue,” Risch said.

Source: The Guardian