After months of denials by the governments of both countries, a new Ethiopian report has confirmed that Eritrean soldiers have committed atrocities and possible war crimes in the Tigray region of Ethiopia.
The long-awaited report by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission has described how Eritrean troops massacred more than 100 civilians, including elderly and physically disabled people, in the historic town of Axum in late November.
The report, quoting eyewitnesses, provides graphic details of incidents in which Eritrean soldiers destroyed a church with gunfire, dragged civilians from their homes to kill them, ran over a dead body with a tank, ordered the burial of civilian victims in mass graves and left other bodies in the streets for hyenas to eat.
“As these grave human-rights violations may amount to crimes against humanity or war crimes, it underscores the need for a comprehensive investigation into [the] overall human-rights situation in Tigray region,” the commission said in its preliminary findings on the Axum massacre.
The report will add to the growing pressure on Ethiopia and Eritrea to withdraw Eritrean forces from Tigray. Both the United States and the European Union have publicly demanded the Eritrean withdrawal for the past several weeks.
The Eritrean soldiers are “fuelling the conflict in Tigray, reportedly committing atrocities and exacerbating ethnic violence,” senior European Union officials said in a statement last month.
Tibor Nagy, the top diplomat for African affairs in the former Trump administration, tweeted on Wednesday that the “horrendous abuses” by Eritrean troops are a result of Eritrea “still seeking revenge for its defeat in the Ethio-Eritrean War for which it blames Tigray.”
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last month that the “immediate withdrawal” of Eritrean troops is among the “essential first steps” in Tigray.
Canada, however, has declined to make any public statement about the Eritrean troops, even after high-level conversations in February and March in which Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau spoke at length with their Ethiopian counterparts.
The Globe and Mail asked International Development Minister Karina Gould whether Canada will follow the U.S. and European Union examples in demanding the withdrawal of the Eritrean troops, but Ms. Gould said the federal government prefers to take a backroom approach.
“We are going to continue using diplomatic channels,” she told The Globe in an interview on Wednesday.
“We have been having a lot of conversations with our counterparts in the Ethiopian government,” she said. “We’ve certainly called for a resolution of conflict, because ultimately that’s going to be the most important to end what we are seeing in terms of human-rights abuses.”
Ms. Gould said Ottawa is responding to the Tigray crisis by providing $34-million in new humanitarian assistance to Ethiopia, in addition to $3-million announced in November.
A detailed breakdown of the new spending, provided by her officials, shows that $2-million will go to the international Red Cross in Tigray. Around $23-million will go to United Nations agencies that have a national scope, and about $9-million is earmarked for NGOs in other regions of Ethiopia.
Her spokesperson, Louis Bélanger, said these agencies will decide where the needs are greatest. The spending will also respond to the “pre-existing humanitarian needs in Ethiopia,” Ms. Gould said.
Ethiopia launched a military offensive against Tigray’s rebellious government in early November, and the Tigrayans soon alleged that Eritrea had sent thousands of soldiers across the border to join the Ethiopian offensive. The allegation was later supported by detailed reports from local and international media and human-rights groups.
But the governments of both Eritrea and Ethiopia consistently denied the reports – until this week, when Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed finally acknowledged the presence of the Eritrean troops.
Mr. Abiy, in a speech to parliament on Tuesday, said the Eritrean government “did a lasting favour to our soldiers” during the conflict.
“However, after the Eritrean army crossed the border and was operating in Ethiopia, any damage it did to our people was unacceptable,” he said. “We have discussed this four or five times with the Eritrean government.”
In recent weeks, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have both reported that Eritrean troops killed hundreds of civilians in Axum in a massacre over several days in November. But many supporters of the Ethiopian government denounced the human-rights groups and denied their reports. This gave added significance to the report on Wednesday by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, an independent but government-affiliated agency.
The report described how Eritrean soldiers went door to door in Axum, demanding the husbands or sons of the women and then killing the men in front of their families.
The massacre seemed to target Tigrayan people, the report found. In one case, it said, Eritrean soldiers raided two homes, released two people who did not speak the Tigrayan language and killed everyone else.
In another case, according to eyewitnesses quoted in the report, Eritrean soldiers searched a church compound and found a disabled man. They told him to stand up, but he said he could not move an arm and a leg. “Should we kill you then?” the soldiers asked. “Yes, kill me!” the man replied.
“So the soldiers shot and killed him,” the report said.
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