As Ethiopia lunges ever closer to an all-out civil war, the UN and local investigators on Wednesday released a joint report accusing all sides fighting in the northern Tigray region of atrocities that may amount to war crimes.
The document, from the UN’s Geneva-based human rights team and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, accused all forces in the conflict of torturing and killing civilians, and engaging in rape and ethnic targeting.
It was released one year after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent troops into Tigray to fight separatists there and as the rebels appear poised to advance on the capital Addis Ababa after mounting a stunning reversal of the war in June.
“All parties to the Tigray conflict have committed violations of international human rights, humanitarian and refugee law,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet.
“Some of these may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.”
The study covers November to June of the year-long conflict which has pitted Tigrayan rebels against the Ethiopian army and its allies — militiamen from the nearby Amhara region and soldiers from neighbouring Eritrea.
Most abuses in that period were committed by Ethiopian and Eritrean forces, but there has been a recent rise in complaints against Tigrayan forces as well, Ms Bachelet said.
Eritrean troops had a “huge responsibility” for many abuses, she added.
Based on 269 interviews, the report revealed multiple accounts of Eritrean soldiers committing acts of mutilation and rape.
In many cases, rape and other forms of sexual violence were used “to degrade and dehumanise the victims”, the report stated.
Researchers said Eritrean soldiers had killed some 100 civilians in Axum and that Ethiopian soldiers had dragged about 70 men from their homes and killed them in three villages in southern Tigray.
They also accused Tigrayan forces of killing some 200 Amhara civilians in the town of Mai Kadra in what may amount to a revenge attack for the slaying of Tigrayans by militia forces from Amhara.
Mr Abiy said he recognised the “important” report but had “serious reservations”. He said it did not accuse the government of genocide or of diverting food aid, and said its findings would be investigated by a civil-military task force.
Eritrea's Information Minister Yemane Meskel, who previously denied any Eritrean involvement in Tigray, said the document was based on a “fallacious narrative on the origins of the conflict” and “cannot be taken seriously”.
Getachew Reda, a spokesman for the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), said the report had omitted some “heinous crime spots” and accused investigators from the state-backed commission of bias.
Human rights groups, journalists and civil society organisations have documented many more mass killings of civilians that were not mentioned in the document, which does not kick-start a mechanism for prosecuting those behind abuses.
Laetitia Bader, the regional director for Human Rights Watch, said it was “not an exhaustive account” and called for an “independent, international investigative mechanism” that can “preserve evidence and pave the way for genuine accountability”.
The report was released after several days in which TPLF forces, now allied to Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) rebels from another region, made significant territorial gains against Mr Abiy’s government and advanced towards the capital.
OLA spokesman Odaa Tarbii said on Wednesday that Addis Ababa could fall within “months if not weeks” and said the overthrow of Mr Abiy's government was a “foregone conclusion”.
His comments came hours after the government declared a state of emergency on Tuesday and urged residents of Addis Ababa to prepare to defend their neighbourhoods and stop Ethiopia from slipping into Syria-style chaos.
Ms Bachelet said the emergency measures “raise very serious concerns".
“The risks are grave that, far from stabilising the situation, these extremely broad measures will deepen divisions, endanger civil society and human rights defenders, provoke greater conflict and only add to the human suffering already at unacceptable levels,” she said.
Mr Abiy sent troops into Tigray a year ago in response to reported TPLF attacks on army camps. The 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner promised a swift victory, but by late June, the rebels had retaken most of Tigray and pushed into the neighbouring Afar and Amhara regions.