Ethiopia’s prime minister Abiy Ahmed has accused rebel forces in the northern Tigray region of “massacring” scores of civilians as a spiralling internal conflict has drawn international condemnation.

Mr Abiy said that Ethiopia’s federal troops fighting loyalists of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, or TPLF, had engaged in the “liberation” of the western part of the restive region of Tigray.

He described this as a “victory for the innocent civilians of Mai-Kadra that were brutally massacred by TPLF forces this week”.

Amnesty International said late on Thursday that “scores, likely hundreds” of, supposedly, mainly ethnically Amhara residents of southwestern Tigray were “stabbed or hacked to death in Mai-Kadra” with machetes. It added that witnesses “said forces loyal to the TPLF were responsible”, something the Tigrayan group has denied and Amnesty has not been able to confirm.

This is the first major reported incident of civilian killings in a conflict that started last week between the government of Mr Abiy, winner of last year’s Nobel Peace Prize, and the TPLF. The human rights group also had “digitally verified gruesome photographs and videos of bodies strewn across the town”, adding that the dead “had gaping wounds that appear to have been inflicted by sharp weapons such as knives and machetes”.

“If confirmed as having been deliberately carried out by a party to the current fighting, these killings of civilians would of course amount to war crimes,” Michelle Bachelet, the UN’s high commissioner for human rights, said in a statement on Friday. “However, the first priority right now must be to stop the fighting and prevent any further atrocities from taking place.”

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Members of militias from the Amhara region of southwestern Tigray travel to confront TPLF fighters this week © Tiksa Negeri/Reuters

Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief and Janez Lenarcic, the EU’s crisis management commissioner, warned in a statement that “ethnically targeted measures, hate speech and allegations of atrocities occurring in Ethiopia are deeply worrying. The demonisation of ethnic groups is a vicious and lethal cycle from which Ethiopia must be spared.”

In a country prone to bouts of ethno-nationalist violence that challenge Mr Abiy’s pan-Ethiopian agenda of political reforms, the fighting is the culmination of a feud between the TPLF and the prime minister, who is from the Oromo ethnic group.

Mr Abiy took office in 2018 and purged his leadership of many Tigrayans who had been in power for almost three decades. Tensions escalated into armed conflict this month after an alleged attack by the TPLF on a federal military base of the Northern Command, which observers fear may spiral into a civil war that could rattle the country and spread into the wider region.

Map of Tigray region in Ethiopia

“Prime Minister Abiy didn’t want to be dragged into conflict,” said a senior Ethiopian official. “We believe this operation will be short — this is not a civil war.” Since fighting began, there have been hundreds of deaths in Tigray, a region of more than 5m people, according to state media.

Federal warplanes have bombed arms depots. Soldiers and ragtag militias have mounted a ground offensive in several parts of the region bordering Eritrea, with senior members of the TPLF calling the campaign “uncivilised and unnecessary”. Mr Abiy has called the TPLF a “criminal clique”.

Ethiopia’s parliament has annulled the regional government of Tigray, allowing the federal government in Addis Ababa to install an interim government on Friday. According to Reuters, the African Union sacked its security head, Ethiopia’s Gebreegziabher Mebratu Melese, after the Ethiopian government accused him of disloyalty to the country. 

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Via Financial Times