KAMPALA, UGANDA - An Ethiopian diplomat who quit his post in the United States over concerns about atrocities in Tigray is calling for peace talks between the government and the embattled region's fugitive leaders.
Berhane Kidanemariam served as the deputy chief of mission at the Ethiopian Embassy in Washington until early March. In an interview with The Associated Press late Thursday, he warned that a protracted war in Tigray is devastating the region's 6 million people.
"We have to prioritize peaceful settlement and negotiation," he said. "Without peaceful settlement and negotiation, peace couldn't prevail. The only solution is peace talks."
Between 60,000 and 70,000 people are now believed to have died in the war since November, he said, citing information gleaned from sources inside Ethiopia. Most of the victims are "civilians, especially the youngsters," he said.
Ethiopian authorities have not given a death toll in the Tigray war.
Kidanemariam said that Tigrayan fighters "are getting better" in their defenses, increasing the likelihood of a long war in which reported abuses already include massacres, rapes, forced displacement, and the vandalism of priceless cultural sites.
"Anything which the human beings can use" has been destroyed in some way, he said, describing the looting of everything from banks to churches and mosques. "It's horrible even to explain it."
Kidanemariam hails from the Tigray region, the base of a party that dominated national politics for decades before the rise of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. But he said his background had not influenced his decision to call it "a genocidal war."
"I don’t need to be Tigrayan," Kidanemariam said, referring to his March 10 resignation. "Seeing this kind of horrible, catastrophic war, I couldn’t tolerate it."
The conflict began in November, when Abiy sent government troops into Tigray after an attack there on federal military facilities. Fighting persists even as Ethiopian authorities insist the situation there is returning to normal.
The Ethiopian prime minister, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for his efforts to make peace with Eritrea, now faces pressure to end the war 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.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said earlier in March that some atrocities in Tigray amount to "ethnic cleansing."
Eritrean troops as well as fighters from Amhara, an Ethiopian region bordering Tigray, "need to come out" of Tigray, Blinken said, adding that the region needs "a force 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. That has to stop."
Ethiopia's government, which strongly denies civilians are deliberately targeted, called Blinken's assertion unfounded.
Jake Sullivan, the U.S. national security adviser, said in a statement Thursday that President Joe Biden is dispatching Sen. Chris Coons to Ethiopia to express the administration’s "grave concerns" about the growing humanitarian crisis and human rights abuses in Tigray, and the risk of broader instability in the Horn of Africa.
The statement said Coons will also discuss the situation with African Union leaders but gave no details about Coons’ travel.
The humanitarian situation in Tigray remains "extremely concerning, with conflict continuing to drive displacements of people and reports of some villages completely emptied," according to the latest U.N. humanitarian assessment.
Humanitarian officials have warned that a growing number of people might be starving to death in Tigray. The fighting erupted on the brink of harvest in the largely agricultural region and sent an untold number of people fleeing their homes. Witnesses have described widespread looting by Eritrean soldiers as well as the burning of crops.