The UN Security Council (UNSC) discussed the situation in the Tigray region in Ethiopia at a meeting on Thursday, March 4, amid an increasing number of reports of massacre, mass rapes, torching of villages and enforced starvation. More information has also come to light as aid agencies are beginning to access the besieged State in the northern part of the country.
Speaking at the meeting, Mark Lowcock, UN Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, warned of increasing violence and famine. UN Human Rights head Michelle Bachelet also called for a UN-led investigation into the atrocities.
The UNSC meeting was requested by the Irish mission to the UN, and supported by Estonia, France, Norway, UK, and the US. This was the fourth meeting on the conflict since the war broke out on November 4, 2020, when Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, ordered the Ethiopian federal troops into Tigray. Ahmed declared the offensive after forces of the Tigray region attacked a federal military base.
The stated aim of the attack – dislodging the State government led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TLPF) – was accomplished by the end of November. An interim Tigray government has since been appointed by the federal government.
However, the TPLF, formerly the dominant force in Ethiopian politics until Abiy’s rise to power in 2018, has withdrawn to the mountains and has been conducting a low-level guerilla war against the occupying forces. The TPLF was elected with 152 out of 190 seats in the regional legislature in the September 2020 polls in violation of the federal government’s decision to postpone all elections in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. The TPLF remains popular among the Tigray ethnic community.
Amid these developments, the civilian population of the Tigray region has become the target of the occupying forces which reportedly include troops from neighboring Eritrea. Both Ethiopia and Eritrea have denied the presence of the latter’s forces in Tigray. The presence of Eritrean troops was also raised in Thursday’s UN meeting with Lowcock calling for their withdrawal.
Eritrea has a historic animosity with the TPLF, which led Ethiopia in the war with Eritrea in 1998-2000. The TPLF had also opposed the peace deal which Abiy Ahmed struck with Eritrea, after coming to power as a reformer in 2018.
The Eritrean troops’ occupation of Tigray, alongside the Ethiopian federal forces, has complicated the fragile situation. One of Eritrean positions on the Mai Koho mountain in Axum city, around 185 kilometers to the north of the regional capital Mekelle, was attacked in November by a small group of TPLF fighters or pro-TPLF militiamen, with the support of the local residents. Some youths in the locality joined in with improvised weapons and sticks, while others aided the fighters with food supply.
Eritrean troops, who repelled the attack, set out to massacre the local residents to punish them for their support. “Over an approximately 24-hour period on 28-29 November, Eritrean soldiers deliberately shot civilians on the street and carried out systematic house-to-house searches, extrajudicially executing men and boys,” states a report published by Amnesty International (AI) on February 26, 2021.
“The massacre was the culmination of a wave of violations carried out since 19 November, when Eritrean and Ethiopian forces entered Axum together, after indiscriminately shelling the city and firing at those who tried to flee. Following the November 28-29 massacre, Eritrean forces detained hundreds of residents and threatened renewed killing in the event of new resistance. Looting by Eritrean soldiers escalated, and insecurity and hunger led many residents to flee.”
Hundreds of Tigrayans have been killed by the Eritrean troops in Axum between November 19 and 20, alleges the report, which is based on “11 days of research by Amnesty International at the refugee reception center in Hamdayet, eastern Sudan, in January 2021, as well as on numerous phone interviews with witnesses in Axum.”
AI holds that “the indiscriminate shelling of Axum by Ethiopian and Eritrean troops may amount to war crimes, and that the mass execution of Axum civilians by Eritrean troops may amount to crimes against humanity.”
With phone and net restrictions and the prohibition on entry of journalists being gradually eased by the federal government under increasing international pressure, more and more testimonies have been emerging to confirm the massacre.
The federal government, which initially referred to the massacre as a mere allegation, has now said that it is investigating the “credible allegations of atrocities and human rights abuses.”
The Associated Press, which had first reported about the massacre on February 18, 2021, based on separate interviews with survivors and witnesses, said it might be the “deadliest massacre” in this conflict.
There have been others, including in Mai Kadra, where groups affiliated to the TPLF stand accused of killing hundreds of non-Tigrayans in the region, especially those from the neighboring Amhara state, whose militias are supporting the federal troops’ war on Tigray. Eritrean refugees residing in the region have also reportedly come under attack by pro-TPLF forces.
Over 50,000 refugees have fled from Tigray into neighboring Sudan, while another 222,000 are internally displaced. Millions, in need of urgent relief and aid, are at risk of starvation and disease. Multiple eyewitnesses and victims have told journalists and aid workers about widespread looting and burning of food crops by troops. The UN relief agencies have reported spikes in acute malnutrition, particularly among children.
Earlier, the EU had suspended 88 million euros ($107 million) worth of budget support to Ethiopia, in an attempt to pressurize the government into permitting humanitarian agencies access to Tigray.