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Rights Groups Accuse Ethiopian Regional Forces of Ethnic Cleansing in Tigray

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FILE - People walk from a rural area towards a nearby town where a food distribution operated by the Relief Society of Tigray was taking place, near the town of Agula, in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia on May 8, 2021

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch say forces from Ethiopia's Amhara region may have committed war crimes in the neighboring Tigray region. In a new report, the rights groups say hundreds of thousands of civilians in western Tigray have been forced from their homes with threats, sexual violence, denial of aid, and unlawful killings. Mohammed Yusuf reports from VOA's Africa News Center in Nairobi, Kenya.

Western Tigray has been a point of contention between the ethnic Amhara and Tigray communities for decades. The Amhara say the region was taken away from them by the Tigray-led government which ruled Ethiopia for nearly 30 years.

Hostilities erupted in the area early last year, soon after the start of the war between Ethiopia’s federal government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front.

Amnesty International’s Horn of Africa researcher Fisseha Tekle said forces from the Amhara region, aided by government troops, seized control of western Tigray and began a campaign of ethnic cleansing.

“The forces controlling the area western Tigray zone have committed abuses that might amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes," he said. "During the early phases of the conflict, there was shelling, mass killings, and destruction of properties during the early days. But after controlling the areas, the Amhara administration and the Amhara special force and militia administering the area forcibly displaced Tigrayan residents.”

The joint report by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, titled “We Will Erase You From This Land,” documented how regional forces, militia groups, and Ethiopian government forces took part in attacks on and the killing of ethnic Tigrayans.

Researchers spoke to 400 people, most of whom were directly affected by the Tigray conflict which began in November 2020.

Laetitia Bader heads the Horn of Africa operation at Human Rights Watch said the abuses have been going on for a long time, unabated.

“This is an area where the Ethiopian government is in control of distributing assistance and what we found was that Tigrayan communities were being denied water assistance," she said. "So, this after weeks of looting of their properties, especially in the early phases of the conflict which is where we really documented war crimes including by the federal government forces against the population there. This is weeks and months of ongoing repression and fear on this population.”

Bader also said the government, regional and international partners need to protect communities living in the region.

“We call for all those who are arbitrarily detained in horrific conditions to be released," she said. Recognizing that the region will likely remain a contested area, Bader said protection of civilians should be the mandate of an international peacekeeping force.

Aid agencies have struggled to gain access to millions in need of humanitarian assistance in the Tigray region due to government and militia restrictions.

Two weeks ago, the Ethiopian government and the rebel Tigray People’s Liberation Front declared a truce to allow aid to get through.

Operations head for the International Committee of the Red Cross, Dominik Stillhart, said his organization has gained access to the region, but says more supplies are needed.

“We have managed over the weekend, for the first time in many months, to bring a convoy with 200 metric tons of humanitarian assistance by road into Tigray with food, especially medical supplies but also non-food items," he said. "Our teams on the ground are currently in the process of distributing these items as quickly as possible to hospitals, to health centers but also to places of detention where there is a very serious food security situation.”

Neither the Ethiopian government nor the Amhara region government have responded to the new human rights report.

In the past, the Ethiopian government and Amhara regional forces have denied allegations of human rights violations in Tigray and accused the Tigray rebel group of committing abuses.

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