Ethiopian soldiers and rebels are committing war crimes against refugees, HRW says

New report details the role of both Eritrean soldiers and rebel fighters from Tigray in atrocities against refugees

Eritrean refugees caught up in the months-long war in Ethiopia have suffered abuse, including executions and rape, amounting to "clear war crimes", the Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Thursday.

A new report from the US-based watchdog details the role of both Eritrean soldiers and rebel fighters from Ethiopia's northern Tigray region in extensive carnage marked by forced repatriations and large-scale destruction at two refugee camps.

"The horrific killings, rapes and looting against Eritrean refugees in Tigray are clear war crimes," AFP cited Laetitia Bader, HRW's Horn of Africa director, as saying.

"For years, Tigray was a haven for Eritrean refugees fleeing abuse, but many now feel they are no longer safe," she added.

Northern Ethiopia erupted in conflict last November when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent troops into Tigray to topple the regional ruling party, the Tigray People's Liberation Front, a move he said came in response to attacks on federal army camps.

Before fighting broke out, Tigray was home to 92,000 Eritrean refugees, including 19,200 in the Hitsats and Shimelba camps, according to Ethiopia's Agency for Refugees and Returnees Affairs.

Although Ethiopia and Eritrea fought a brutal border war in 1998-2000 that left tens of thousands dead, Mr Ahmed initiated a rapprochement with Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki that earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019. The Eritrean capital Asmara lent him military backing in Tigray.

Robing, detaining and raping

Eritrean and Tigrayan forces first clashed near Hitsats about two weeks after the conflict began.

HRW said it received "credible reports" that Eritrean troops killed 31 people in Hitsats town, and that the true toll was "likely significantly higher".

The Tigrayan forces regained control of the area in early December and began robbing, detaining, raping and attacking refugees with weapons including a grenade, potentially killing dozens, HRW said.

Eritrean forces returned the following month and forced those still in the camps to evacuate. Satellite images indicate Hitsats was largely destroyed soon after, the watchdog added.

Thousands of refugees formerly in Hitsats and Shimelba remain unaccounted for, while hundreds had little choice but to return to Eritrea in what HRW described as "coerced repatriations".

Others ended up in two camps in southern Tigray, Mai Aini and Adi Harush, which came under TPLF control in July.

Updated: September 16th 2021, 9:44 AM