The UN on Wednesday was trying to get investigators into the war-torn Afar region of northern Ethiopia to gather evidence about the reported deaths of about 200 civilians sheltering at a makeshift refugee centre last week.
Joe English, a spokesman for the UN children's agency, told The National they had received credible information about an attack in the tiny hamlet of Galikoma Kebele last Thursday and were sending investigators to the scene as soon as it was safe.
Government-aligned troops and rebels from the nearby Tigray region clashed in the area in recent days. Each side has accused the other of committing atrocities, amid fears that Ethiopia is spiralling into an all-out civil war.
“Unicef received credible information from partners about attacks last Thursday at a camp for internally displaced people in Afar region that was sheltering people displaced from recent clashes,” Mr English said.
“An integrated mission, comprised of various UN agencies, intends to assess the site of the reported attack in Galikoma Kebele, in Gulina Woreda of Fenti Zone, as soon as security permits.”
According to reports, more than 100 children and a similar number of adults were killed in attacks on a school and a health clinic that were being used as shelters for those displaced in recent bouts of fighting. A stockpile of food was also reportedly destroyed.
UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said the health clinic and school may have been shelled, but did not indicate if the artillery had been fired by Tigrayan rebels, government forces, local Afar militias or another armed group.
The Tigrayan rebel advance into Afar has forced about 76,000 people to flee their homes, he told reporters.
“We run out of words to describe the horror of what is being inflicted on civilians,” Mr Dujarric said on Wednesday.
Getachew Reda, a senior Tigray People's Liberation Front official, said on social media that Tigrayan forces would co-operate with Unicef on the investigation. He also accused Ethiopian government troops of burning down a warehouse.
Ethiopia is rapidly descending into civil war, with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed urging civilians to take up arms and Tigrayan rebels joining up with another Ethiopian dissident faction, the Oromo Liberation Army.
TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael on Wednesday told Reuters his group was in talks with the Oromo Liberation Army, heaping pressure on Mr Abiy’s government in Addis Ababa. It was the latest sign of escalation in the nine-month-old conflict.
Earlier, Mr Abiy urged civilians to "show their patriotism" by joining the army in its fight against the “terrorist TPLF”, while helping to root out the group’s “spies and agents” across the Horn of Africa nation of 112 million people.
Mr Abiy in November sent troops to topple the TPLF, which ruled Tigray at the time. It dominated national politics for about three decades until 2018. The prime minister also accused the group of attacking army camps.
The Nobel peace prize winner declared victory within weeks after government forces took the Tigrayan capital Mekele, but TPLF leaders remained on the run and fighting continued.
In a stunning reversal of the conflict in late June, pro-TPLF forces re-entered Mekele. Mr Abiy declared a unilateral ceasefire and the army mostly pulled out of the northern region.
UN says security situation in Tigray could deteriorate
The rebels then pushed on into the nearby Amhara and Afar regions. Thousands of people have been killed and hundreds of thousands depend on handouts, with famine-like conditions across parts of Tigray.
In a report on Wednesday, Amnesty International accused Ethiopian and Eritrean troops of raping hundreds of women and girls, subjecting some to sexual slavery and mutilation, during their offensive into Tigray.
Researchers compiled evidence from dozens of victims. Some said they had been gang-raped while being held captive for weeks. Others said they were sexually assaulted in front of family members.
“It’s clear that rape and sexual violence have been used as a weapon of war to inflict lasting physical and psychological damage on women and girls in Tigray,” the group's secretary general Agnes Callamard said, noting that the abuses may amount to war crimes.
Ethiopia's foreign ministry called the study “flawed” and “sensationalised”.