The humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders said Wednesday its staff saw Ethiopian government troops shoot and kill four men they forced off a civilian bus on a road in the embattled region of Tigray.
Doctors Without Borders, or MSF, said in a statement that the killings on Tuesday followed the apparent ambush of an Ethiopian military convoy by an armed group. It said three MSF staff members were able to witness the alleged extrajudicial killings because they were traveling ahead of two public minibuses that were stopped by soldiers on the road from Mekelle, the regional capital, to the city of Adigrat.
"The soldiers then forced the passengers to leave the minibuses. The men were separated from the women, who were allowed to walk away. Shortly afterward, the men were shot," the statement said, adding that the "horrific event further underscores the need for the protection of civilians during this ongoing conflict."
Before the MSF team was allowed to leave the scene, the group said, it saw the shooting victims' bodies on the side of the road. Further ahead, the MSF vehicle was stopped again by soldiers who "pulled the MSF driver out of the vehicle, beat him with the back of a gun and threatened to kill him," the statement said.
There was no immediate reaction from the Ethiopian government.
But Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed 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. Abiy also admitted, after repeated denials by authorities, that troops from neighboring Eritrea have gone into Tigray, where their presence has inflicted "damage" on the region's residents.
Concern continues to grow over the humanitarian situation in the 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.
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.
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 said, 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 said. "As these grave human rights violations may amount to crimes against humanity or war crimes, it underscores the need for a comprehensive investigation into (the) overall human rights situation in Tigray region."
Eritrean authorities have not commented on allegations in that report.