Ethiopia’s Amhara region has rejected allegations of its forces’ involvement in “ethnic cleansing” in the country’s embattled Tigray region after the United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken called for Amhara troops to leave the area.
Speaking to AFP news agency on Thursday, Amhara’s spokesperson Gizachew Muluneh dismissed reports of ethnic cleansing and large-scale displacement as “propaganda”.
Last week, Tigrayan officials accused forces from neighbouring Amhara of kicking thousands of people off the land in western Tigray – a part of the region that ethnic Amharas claim rightfully belongs to them.
“A few Tigrayans may be displaced, a few in number,” Gizachew argued.
His comment came a day after US top diplomat Blinken, testifying before Congress, said he wanted security forces in the region “that will not abuse the human rights of the people of Tigray, or commit acts of ethnic cleansing which we’ve seen in western Tigray”.
Citing “very credible” reports of ongoing human rights abuses and atrocities, he called for “an independent investigation into what took place there” and “a reconciliation process so that the country can move forward politically”.
“We have, as you know, forces from Eritrea over there, and we have forces from an adjoining [Ethiopian] region, Amhara, that are there. They need to come out.”
The fugitive leaders of Tigray seized on Blinken’s comments, issuing a statement on Thursday condemning what they called “the genocidal campaign” targeting their people.
“Thousands of civilians have been massacred, hundreds of thousands forcibly displaced from their homes, civilian installations and Infrastructures systemically destroyed,” said the statement posted on Twitter by Getachew Reda, one of the fugitive leaders of Tigray.
“Despite shamelessly protesting its innocence and profusely promising to allow access to humanitarian agencies and international investigation into allegations, Abiy Ahmed’s regime and its partners in crime have only stepped up their war crimes and crimes against humanity in recent weeks and days.”
A senior Ethiopian diplomat on Wednesday quit his post in Washington over concerns about the reported atrocities in Tigray. Berhane Kidanemariam, who served as the deputy chief of mission at the Ethiopian embassy in Washington, slammed Abiy as a reckless leader who is dividing his country.
Gizachew said Blinken’s call for Amhara forces to leave Tigray was misguided, claiming the territory where these forces were present would actually be considered part of Amhara from now on.
“There are not any Amhara forces in Tigray region. These areas are not Tigrayan areas, in history,” Gizachew said.
“If the Secretary [Blinken] is talking about these areas, these areas are not Tigrayan. Our forces are not in the Tigrayan areas, rather our forces are in Amhara region. That is our response.”
Ethiopia is made up of 10 semi-autonomous federal states organised along ethnic lines, and ethnic violence has soared in recent years.
After months of tensions, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in early November announced military operations against the region’s then-governing party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), accusing them of attacking federal army camps.
Abiy, the winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, leaned on forces from Amhara to secure western and southern Tigray once the TPLF retreated from those areas, and Amhara officials set up transitional administrations in multiple cities and towns.
It was a sensitive move, given that many ethnic Amharas believe the once-dominant TPLF illegally incorporated the fertile territories after it came to power in the early 1990s, and that they should fall under the Amhara administration.
Blinken on Wednesday also urged the withdrawal of Eritrean forces. Multiple reports quoting witnesses and survivors have implicated Eritrean troops in mass killings, rapes and other crimes in the northern Ethiopian region. Eritrea denies having a military presence in the area.
The United Nations rights chief Michelle Bachelet, meanwhile, said last week her office has corroborated grave violations that could amount to “war crimes and crimes against humanity”, while humanitarian officials have warned that a growing number of people might be starving to death in Tigray.
The UN high commissioner for human rights said multiple parties to the conflict had been identified as possible perpetrators, including the Ethiopian National Defence Forces, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the Eritrean armed forces, and Amhara regional forces and allied militias.
In a statement delivered on Tuesday to an African Union council, Abiy said the Ethiopian government had taken “concrete steps to address alleged human rights abuses” and has signalled “its willingness to collaborate with relevant UN agencies for the purposes of these investigations”.