Armed forces from Ethiopia’s Amhara region have stepped up killings, mass detentions and expulsions of ethnic Tigrayans in neighbouring western Tigray, according to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW).
Western Tigray has seen some of the worst violence in the yearlong conflict pitting the federal government and its allies from the Amhara region against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which used to rule Ethiopia.
Amhara and Tigray claim the fertile fields of western Tigray, which are now controlled by Amhara forces and the Ethiopian military.
The United Nations Office for Humanitarian Affairs said 1.2 million people have been forced out of western Tigray since the conflict began, including more than 10,000 in the last week of November.
Amnesty and HRW said they interviewed 31 people in western Tigray by phone in November and December, who described a surge of abuses by Amhara security forces and militias.
“Tigrayan civilians attempting to escape the new wave of violence have been attacked and killed. Scores in detention face life-threatening conditions including torture, starvation, and denial of medical care,” the groups said in a joint statement on Thursday.
They said Amhara regional police and volunteer civilian militia, known as Fano, were expelling Tigrayans from the towns of Adebai, Humera and Rawyan. Six witnesses said Amhara forces shot at Tigrayans fleeing roundups in Adebai.
“When the people tried to escape … [the Fano] attacked them with machetes and axes,” the statement quoted a 34-year-old farmer as saying.
“We were passing bodies and we were all in shock … After we calmed down, we noticed that there were more bodies there too. Everywhere you turned, there would be five, 10 bodies.”
Amhara regional spokesman Gizachew Muluneh described the allegations as “groundless and unjustifiable”.
Gizachew told Reuters news agency that regional security forces were defending Amhara civilians within their own region who he said had been the victims of atrocities committed by TPLF-aligned forces.
“It is embarrassing to accuse the Amhara regional government security forces while our people are suffering from appalling humanitarian disaster due to the TPLF invasion,” he said.
Ethiopian government spokesman Legesse Tulu said Tigrayan forces were to blame for any atrocities.
Rights groups say all sides in the conflict have committed abuses. Days after war broke out in November 2020, mass killings were reported in western Tigray, including the Mai Kadra massacre, when Tigrayans killed hundreds of Amhara civilians and then Tigrayans were killed in retaliation.
Earlier this month, HRW said Tigrayan forces had summarily executed dozens of civilians in two towns they controlled in the Amhara region between August 31 and September 9.