KAMPALA, Uganda -- Ethiopia's leader on Tuesday said atrocities have been reported in Tigray, his first public acknowledgment of possible war crimes in the country's northern region where fighting persists as government troops hunt down its fugitive leaders.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed also admitted, after repeated denials by authorities, that troops from neighboring Eritrea have gone into Tigray, where their presence has inflicted “damages” on the region's residents.
“Reports indicate that atrocities have been committed in Tigray region," Abiy said in an address before lawmakers in the capital, Addis Ababa.
War is “a nasty thing,” he said, speaking the local Amharic language. “We know the destruction this war has caused.” He said soldiers who raped women or committed other crimes will be held responsible, even though he cited “propaganda of exaggeration” by the Tigray People's Liberation Front, the once-dominant party whose leaders challenged Abiy's legitimacy after the postponement of elections last year.
Commenting on the reported presence of Eritrean troops in Ethiopia, Abiy said they crossed the border and moved across Tigray, “causing damages to our people ... We won’t accept that.”
He suggested the Eritrean soldiers are not there with his blessing. “The argument the Eritrean government presents for this is that it is a national security issue because Ethiopian troops are going after (Tigrayan) forces in other locations, so they want to keep controlling border areas," he said. “But they have told us they don’t have the willingness to stay as long as we control trenches along the border."
Abiy spoke as concern continues to grow over the humanitarian situation in the embattled region that is home to 6 million of Ethiopia's more than 110 million people. Authorities haven't cited a death toll in the war, but a trio of opposition groups based in Tigray say more than 50,000 have been killed.
The United States has characterized some abuses in Tigray as “ethnic cleansing,” charges dismissed by Ethiopian authorities as unfounded. The U.S. also has urged Eritrean troops, who are fighting on the side of Ethiopian government forces, to withdraw from Tigray.
The Ethiopian prime minister, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for his efforts to make peace with Eritrea, faces pressure to end the conflict in Tigray as well as to institute an international investigation into alleged war crimes, ideally led by the United Nations. The government’s critics say an ongoing federal probe simply isn’t enough because the government can’t effectively investigate itself.
Rupert Colville, a spokesman in Geneva for U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, told The Associated Press last week that Ethiopia’s Human Rights Commission had asked to participate with her office in “a joint investigation into allegations of serious human rights violations by all sides” in Tigray.
But Abiy said in Tuesday's address, which included answering questions from lawmakers, that fighters loyal to the Tigray People's Liberation Front had committed a massacre in the town of Mai Kadra. “But it is not getting enough attention,” he said of that massacre, describing it as “the worst” in the conflict.
Hours after Abiy’s parliamentary address, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission released its preliminary report into serious rights violations in the Tigrayan city of Axum, where accounts of atrocities by Ethiopian and allied forces were detailed last month in reports by The Associated Press and by Amnesty International.
According to the new report by the government-established rights agency, Eritrean soldiers killed over 100 people, including pilgrims attending an annual religious event, on Nov. 28 and the next day in Axum, which is also spelled Aksum. The victims included some "killed in front of their children, spouses and mothers,” the report says, citing witnesses.
"These widespread human rights violations are not ordinary crimes but grave contraventions of applicable international and human rights laws and principles, marked by intentionally directed attacks against civilians who were not directly taking part in the hostilities," the report says. “As these grave human rights violations may amount to crimes against humanity or war crimes, it underscores the need for a comprehensive investigation into overall human rights situation in Tigray region.”
It was not immediately possible to get a comment from Eritrean authorities.
The Tigray conflict began in November, when Abiy sent government troops into the region after an attack there on federal military facilities. The federal army is now hunting the fugitive regional leaders, who have reportedly retreated into Tigray's remote mountainous areas.
Abiy accused Tigray's leaders of drumming up “a war narrative” while the area faced challenges such as a destructive invasion of locusts and the COVID-19 pandemic. “This was misplaced and untimely arrogance,” he said, according to a transcript of his comments posted on Twitter by the prime minister's office.
President Joe Biden last week dispatched Sen. Chris Coons to Ethiopia to express the administration’s “grave concerns” about the growing humanitarian crisis and human rights abuses in Tigray, and the risk of broader instability in the Horn of Africa. Details of Coons' weekend visit haven't been released.
Humanitarian officials have warned that a growing number of people might be starving to death in Tigray. The fighting erupted on the brink of harvest in the largely agricultural region and sent an untold number of people fleeing their homes. Witnesses have described widespread looting by Eritrean soldiers as well as the burning of crops.