Troops went on a rampage and systematically killed hundreds of civilians in cold blood, which appears to constitute crimes against humanity, Amnesty International says of the violence in northern Axum city.
Eritrean soldiers killed hundreds of civilians in Ethiopia's ancient town of Axum between November 28 and 29, rights group Amnesty International has said, one of several mass killings reported during a conflict that erupted nearly four months ago in the northern region of Tigray.
"Over an approximately 24-hour period, on 28-29 November 2020, Eritrean troops operating in the Ethiopian city of Axum killed many hundreds of civilians," Amnesty said, citing 41 witnesses.
The rights group said that the mass execution of civilians by Eritrean troops may amount to crimes against humanity.
The Ethiopian government’s emergency task force for the Tigray said on Thursday that investigations into violence in Axum were under way.
"The evidence is compelling and points to a chilling conclusion. Ethiopian and Eritrean troops carried out multiple war crimes in their offensive to take control of Axum," said Deprose Muchena of Amnesty International.
"Above and beyond that, Eritrean troops went on a rampage and systematically killed hundreds of civilians in cold blood, which appears to constitute crimes against humanity.
"This atrocity ranks among the worst documented so far in this conflict."
Killings took months to confirm
The state-run Ethiopian Human Rights Commission released a statement timed to coincide with the Amnesty report, saying preliminary investigations indicated that Eritrean soldiers had killed an unknown number of civilians in Axum in retaliation for an earlier attack by soldiers of the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), the region's ousted ruling party.
Eritrea's Foreign Minister Osman Saleh Mohammed did not respond to requests for comment.
News of the mass killing took months to confirm; communications to Tigray were down for many weeks and media access has been tightly restricted, although that is now loosening slightly.
Both Ethiopia and Eritrea have previously denied that Eritrean troops were in Ethiopian territory.
The TPLF and many residents say Eritrea intervened to support Ethiopian soldiers after the TPLF attacked government bases in the early hours of November 4.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed claimed victory on November 28, the day that TPLF forces withdrew from – and the day Amnesty says Eritreans were killing civilians in – Axum.
The rights group said the killings were retaliation for an attack by local militia and that soldiers executed men and boys in the streets and engaged in extensive looting.
Tigray man's six family members killed
A Tigrayan man working in construction told Reuters news agency that Eritrean soldiers shot dead six members of his family in Axum on November 28, including his 17-year-old brother and 78-year-old father.
Since phones were down, he found out more than a month later from residents who had buried them.
"Everything our family had – all the happiness – has turned to darkness," he said in an phone interview from the capital Addis Ababa this week.
Residents told Amnesty that many victims in Axum carried no weapons and were running away from the soldiers when they were shot.
"I saw a lot of people dead on the street. Even my uncle’s family. Six of his family members were killed. So many people were killed," said a 21-year-old male resident.
The next day the soldiers allegedly shot at those trying to move the bodies, while carrying out house-to-house raids.
One man told Amnesty he saw soldiers line up six men and shoot them from behind in the street outside his house.
Government says probe on
Mulu Nega, head of Tigray’s government-appointed interim administration, told Reuters: "The police and the judiciary are investigating."
Reuters could not reach people in Axum by phone. Communications to Tigray remain patchy, as does electricity.
Axum is a UNESCO World Heritage site, famed for its tall obelisks and ancient churches, including one reputed to house the Bible's famed Ark of the Covenant.