Rebel forces, operating in a new alliance, are pushing closer to the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, as a new investigation gave fresh accounts of suspected war crimes and crimes against humanity in the brutal conflict that is now entering its second year.
The Tigrayan and Oromo rebels have advanced to within 325 kilometres of Addis Ababa on a main national highway after capturing a series of towns in their new offensive, according to reports on Wednesday. More than 700 kilometres of the highway have fallen to the two militia forces since June.
In a separate operation, some rebel units are reportedly pushing toward a key highway connecting Ethiopia and its main sources of supply in the sea ports of Djibouti. Cutting off this route would sharply escalate the economic pressure on Addis Ababa.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed urged his soldiers to fight on. “We will bury this enemy with our blood and bones and make the glory of Ethiopia high again,” he said in a speech at his military headquarters to mark the first anniversary of the Tigray conflict.
Despite his defiant rhetoric, there were clear signs of international nervousness about the potential collapse of his government. Kenya tightened security on its border with Ethiopia, apparently fearing an exodus of refugees, while the U.S. embassy warned Americans in Ethiopia that they “should consider departing now.” Further escalation of the conflict is likely and could cause “supply-chain shortages, communications blackouts and travel disruptions,” the embassy said in its advisory to U.S. citizens.
Earlier in the week, Mr. Abiy declared a national state of emergency and told residents of Addis Ababa to take up weapons to prepare the defence of their neighbourhoods. But one of his Facebook posts, calling on Ethiopians to use “every weapon and power” to “bury” the Tigrayan forces, was removed by Facebook on Wednesday for violating its policies against inciting violence.
In another ominous escalation, Ethiopian forces have begun launching air strikes at targets in Tigray, far from the front lines of the conflict. The air strikes over the past two weeks, including a new attack on Wednesday, have killed and injured many civilians in the region, according to Tigrayan media reports.
In a report released on Wednesday, a joint investigation by the United Nations human-rights office and the Ethiopian human-rights commission revealed new details of atrocities by all sides during the first eight months of the war, including massacres, torture, executions and gang rapes of civilians.
The abuses “may amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes,” the report said.
The UN human rights commissioner, Michelle Bachelet, said the majority of violations in the first eight months were perpetrated by Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers. More recently, alleged abuses by Tigrayan forces have increased, while the reported violations by Ethiopian and Eritrean troops have continued, she said.
Based on consistent reports emerging from Ethiopia, it appears that the “horrific violations and abuses” have persisted in recent weeks, Ms. Bachelet said.
“Nobody is winning this reckless war, which is engulfing increasing parts of the country. Every day more people are suffering and dying.”
The joint investigation, partly funded by $600,000 from the Canadian government, has been criticized for failing to obtain access for travel to key regions of Tigray, including the sites of reported massacres. The report acknowledged that its investigators had often been hindered in their work.
Laetitia Bader, Horn of Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said the report of the joint investigation is “not an exhaustive account” and should be followed by “an independent, international investigative mechanism” to preserve evidence and ensure justice.
Some of the most disturbing findings in the report were a series of detailed accounts of sexual violence and gang rapes of civilians. The victims included young girls, elderly women, men and boys. Their identities were not disclosed in the report, to protect them from possible retribution.
“Some of the reported accounts of rape were characterized by appalling levels of brutality,” the report said. “Acts of rape were frequently intended to degrade and dehumanize an entire ethnic group.”
One woman told the investigators that she was gang raped for 11 days by 23 Eritrean soldiers who also inserted foreign objects into her vagina. When she fell unconscious, the soldiers left her for dead. She was found and taken to hospital, where she need four months of treatment.
Another survivor said she was raped by 15 Eritrean soldiers. When the investigators found her, she was “traumatized and had difficulties walking” because of “grave bodily injuries inflicted during the rape,” the report said.
A third woman said she was abducted by an Ethiopian soldier and held against her will at the soldier’s house in Amhara region for three months, during which she was repeatedly raped and abused.
In a fourth case, a 16-year-old boy was raped by nine Eritrean soldiers and later died by suicide, the report said.
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