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A bus carrying civilians passes a destroyed tank outside Mekelle, the capital of Ethiopia's Tigray region, on June 29, 2021.FINBARR O'REILLY/The New York Times News Service

Hundreds of thousands of Tigrayans were forcibly expelled from their homes in a systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing that included mass killings and sexual violence by Amhara militias and their allies, a year-long investigation has found.

The report by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, due to be released on Wednesday, concluded that war crimes and crimes against humanity were committed in Western Tigray, including some of the worst atrocities of the war that erupted in northern Ethiopia in 2020.

The crimes may have amounted to genocide or genocidal acts, the researchers said, calling for further independent investigations.

Soldiers from neighbouring Eritrea participated in some of the crimes in Western Tigray, and the Ethiopian military was complicit in allowing the ethnic cleansing by the Amhara militias, the report says.

The atrocities have received little attention internationally because Western Tigray was largely sealed off from the outside world during most of the war. Journalists and humanitarian agencies have only rarely gained access to the region and were often subject to harassment and obstruction, keeping the ethnic cleansing campaign mostly hidden.

To understand what happened, the human-rights researchers interviewed more than 420 survivors and other witnesses and examined satellite images, videos, photos, and medical and forensic reports.

The 239-page report says the ethnic cleansing campaign in Western Tigray has included murder, torture, rape, sexual slavery, enforced disappearances, widespread pillage of livestock and crops, looting and occupation of homes, and other crimes. Thousands of Tigrayans were rounded up for long-term detention and abuse in overcrowded jails, where thousands still remain today, the report found. Some detainees died from torture or starvation, it said.

“Ethiopian authorities have steadfastly denied the shocking breadth of the crimes that have unfolded and have egregiously failed to address them,” Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth said in a statement.

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Western Tigray, a fertile area that borders Amhara region, has been the focus of boundary disputes and competing ownership claims for decades. The tensions spiralled into warfare after the Ethiopian military launched an offensive in November, 2020, to seek control of Tigray, a dissident region that was pushing for greater autonomy.

Two weeks later, Western Tigray fell under the control of Ethiopian troops and their loosely allied Amhara militias. Almost immediately, the new authorities began threatening the Tigrayans and ordering them to leave. They banned the Tigrayan language, confiscated the personal documents of Tigrayans, looted their food and property, blocked them from receiving humanitarian aid and health care, and arrested and tortured many, the investigation found.

In January, 2021, it said, Amhara militias rounded up about 60 Tigrayan men and executed them at the Tekeze River. This triggered a further mass exodus of Tigrayans from the region.

In at least 11 towns and villages, Amhara forces distributed leaflets or crude written warnings to Tigrayan families, giving deadlines for them to leave, often with death threats attached, the report said. “Tigrayans, leave this territory if you want to save your life,” one warning said. Stones were often thrown at Tigrayan houses, and they were taunted with loudspeakers.

“You are evil and we are purifying your blood,” one group of Amhara militiamen told a 27-year-old Tigrayan woman as they raped her, the report said.

An earlier joint investigation by the United Nations human-rights office and the Ethiopian human-rights commission had uncovered details of atrocities by all sides in the war in northern Ethiopia, including massacres, torture, executions and gang rapes. But that investigation, partly funded by $600,000 from the Canadian government, faced security and administrative obstacles and was unable to reach key locations where people from Western Tigray had fled. Its report last November made little mention of the abuses by Amhara authorities and militias.

“The response of Ethiopia’s international and regional partners has failed to reflect the gravity of the crimes that continue to unfold in Western Tigray,” Amnesty’s secretary-general, Agnès Callamard, said in a statement accompanying the new investigation.

Researchers at the University of Ghent, in Belgium, have estimated that as many as 500,000 people have died across Tigray from war-related causes, including direct killings, starvation and lack of health care.

In December, the UN Human Rights Council voted to establish an independent investigation into abuses and suspected crimes against humanity in the Ethiopian war. The council authorized a three-member panel of experts to spend a year collecting evidence and identifying perpetrators who could be prosecuted.

Russia and China were among 15 countries that voted against the UN investigation.

Last week, Ethiopia attempted to block funding for the investigation. But in a vote at the UN General Assembly’s budget committee, 66 countries opposed the attempt to block funding, while only 27 countries voted in favour of it.

After the vote, an Ethiopian diplomat said Ethiopia does not recognize the UN investigation and will not allow the investigators to enter the country.

Louis Charbonneau, the UN director for Human Rights Watch, said the vote by the budget committee was “a strong message to Ethiopia that its brazen attempt to escape accountability for war crimes by defunding the UN’s human-rights investigation is unacceptable.”

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