Comments by head of PM Abiy Ahmed’s Tigray conflict task force represent an unusually stark assessment of conditions in the region, where the government asserts normalcy is returning.
A "dirty war" causing suffering for "defenceless" victims is unfolding in Ethiopia's northern Tigray region, a general has said in a briefing with diplomats, according to an audio recording of his comments obtained by AFP.
The statement from General Yohannes Gebremeskel Tesfamariam, head of a task force formed in response to the Tigray conflict, represents an unusually stark assessment of conditions in the region, where Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's government asserts normalcy is returning.
"This is a dirty war because it's affecting everything. You don't see fronts. The cost is immediately to those who are defenceless," Yohannes said during the March 11 briefing in the regional capital Mekelle attended by dozens of diplomats.
"On the atrocities, rape, crime ... I cannot give you concrete evidence, but I don't think we are going to be fortunate to see that such things have not happened."
The audio was authenticated by two people who attended the briefing.
Abiy, winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, sent troops into Tigray on November 4 after blaming the region's once-dominant ruling party, the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), for attacks on army camps.
A communications blackout made it difficult to verify conditions on the ground for weeks, though access has improved recently for humanitarian organisations and the media.
Rare access to region
The March 11 visit to Mekelle was the first time most diplomats had any access to the region since fighting began.
But while many expected they would be able to visit a hospital and sites housing displaced Tigrayans, they were told upon arrival that their stay would be limited to a briefing at a hotel.
Abiy declared victory in Tigray in late November after federal forces took Mekelle, though TPLF leaders remain on the run and fighting has continued.
Residents have told human rights groups and journalists of massacres, widespread sexual violence and indiscriminate killings of civilians by security forces.
Aid workers, meanwhile, say the region's health system has largely collapsed and warn of possible large-scale starvation.
In his comments to diplomats, Yohannes suggested he did not see how a military approach alone would end the conflict.
"I know very few and exceptional conflicts or violence — or fightings, let me say — that have ended only by gun. Very few," said Yohannes, who formerly commanded UN peacekeeping forces in South Sudan.
He said other "mechanisms" would need to be considered, potentially including negotiations and calls for a ceasefire, though he did not put forward a specific proposal himself.
"I believe this is the way out. I don't think we will escape this process," he said.
Abiy's government has repeatedly said TPLF leaders need to be detained and disarmed.