Forces loyal to the TPLF have been battling Ethiopian government soldiers for three weeks. The fighting broke out a refugee exodus, civilian deaths and fears of broader instability in the Horn of Africa. UN urges all parties to seize this opportunity to de-escalate tensions.
The UN Secretary-General António Guterres is deeply concerned over the unfolding situation in the Tigray region of Ethiopia and its surrounding area. Amid reports of a potential military offensive into the regional capital of Mekelle, he urges the leaders of Ethiopia to do everything possible to protect civilians, uphold human rights and ensure humanitarian access for the provision of much-needed assistance.
He also calls for the free and safe movement of people searching for safety and assistance, regardless of their ethnic identity, across both national and international borders. The Secretary-General reiterates the full support of the United Nations to the initiative of the Chairperson of the African Union, President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa, to facilitate peaceful solutions.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, last year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, ordered troops, tanks and warplanes into Tigray in response to an alleged attack on federal military camps by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
However, federal forces were massed on the border between Tigray and Amhara days before the alleged attack on November 4, indicating that the central government was preparing for war long before the incident.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has repeated an ultimatum to Tigray forces to step down or face heavy fire from federal forces outside the region’s capital Mekelle. The Ethiopian army said it has encircled Mekele ahead of a threatened all-out assault. The prime minister, who has resisted calls for mediation, has insisted the conflict has reached a decisive final stage.
The 72-hour ultimatum ends on Wednesday, has not deterred the Tigrayan forces, the dissident region’s leader, said his people are “ready to die” for their homeland. TPLF have claimed they destroyed an army division.
Meanwhile, Addis Ababa says that the regional fighters, who they deem are criminals on the run, are ready to surrender. There is a still a near-total information blackout in the heavily-armed northern Tigray region.
While the TPLF and Ethiopia’s federal government have quietly been at odds since the election of Abiy in 2018, tensions rose after Abiy postponed general elections scheduled for August due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Meanwhile United Nations human rights chief Michelle Bachelet has said that “the highly aggressive rhetoric on both sides regarding the fight for Mekelle is dangerously provocative and risks placing already vulnerable and frightened civilians in grave danger”.
She added that the federal government making claims that Tigray leaders were hiding among civilians does not give Addis the right to use artillery in heavily populated areas.
According to a statement by the state-appointed Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) on Tuesday, a group of Tigrayan youths allegedly stabbed, strangled and bludgeoned to death 600 people of non-Tigrayan origin on 9 November in Mai Kadra town.
EHRC visited Maikadra, Abrhajira, Sanja, Dansha, Humera, and Gonder between November 14 – 19, 2020, as part of its investigation into human rights violations, preliminary findings of which were released.
The preliminary findings state that what transpired in Maikadra on November 9th, 2020, including the killings, bodily and mental injury, as well as the destruction that went on throughout the night, the overall conduct and results thereof, strongly indicate the commission of grave human rights violations which may amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes.
It is also beyond doubt that federal government forces or their allied ethnic militias have also committed atrocities in the same area. Tigrayans who have fled across the border to Sudan tell of attacks on civilians by Amhara militiamen and government soldiers. The government says undercover TPLF agents are sowing disinformation.
Amidst the harrowing acts of the Tigrayan informal youth group, Samri, survivors also tell many stories of humane actions where other residents also of ethnic Tigrayan origin, who saved many lives by hiding targets in their homes, in churches and in farms fields.
EHRC’s Chief Commissioner Daniel Bekele said, “The unimaginably atrocious crime committed against civilians for no reason other than their ethnicity is heartbreaking. Yet we are consoled by the stories of Ethiopians who saw beyond ethnic origin to come to the aid of their compatriots in their time of need. These stories keep the hope of a return to peaceful coexistence going”.
“It is now an urgent priority that victims are provided redress and rehabilitation, and that perpetrators involved directly or indirectly at all levels are held to account before the law.”
As the standoff continues, others point to the plight of civilians who are in the middle, as hundred have already died. Some two million people live in Tigray, and the region already hosts some 96,0000 refugees and 100,000 internationally displaced, according to UN figures. Neighbouring Sudan has taken in more than 30,000 people and the UN expects a further 170,000 to flee by January. Fuel and cash are running out while food for refugees from Eritrea will be gone in a week, the UN says.
While aid groups are poised to try and help those still in the region, a total transport shutdown due to blocked roads has cut off vital humanitarian aid, and the Ethiopian federal governmental has imposed a de facto economic blockade, according to the UN.